Tuesday, August 20, 2013

In a World...

In a world of superhero antics, bombastic pyrotechnics and brooding self-serious dithering that is this summer movie season, one woman strives to make her mark in the cinematic sea of alpha male dominance.  It will require strength.  It will require drive.  For in a world full of nay-saying chauvinism, there is nothing but peril.  And yet, somehow, perhaps inexplicably, In a World..., the disarming, deceptively simple and altogether winning new comedy written, directed and starring Lake Bell manages to find a wealth of wit and poise in her light feminist behind-the-scenes Hollywood satire revolving an untapped sect of the industry-- that of voice over artists.  The very nature of voice acting requires a large degree of anonymity, but the voices are a thing of legend because of their ubiquity-- the guys (and girls) who voice the movie trailers and commercials.  Doesn't it always feel like it's the same voice all the time anyway?  It turns out that behind the scenes industry is pretty cutthroat, a highly competitive world onto itself, one in which Bell, the director, explains right off the top of her new film, filling in the gap between the why and the who before letting her lightly stewed confection of a film do the talking for itself.

Bell, an actress who for years has graced many a film and television show as second fiddle, best friend and caricatured harridan (she played Alec Baldwin's shrewish younger wife in the Meryl Streep comedy It's Complicated for instance), exhibits an uncanny ear for dialogue.  Both natural and not, she scripts her debut In a World... with a charming ping towards the screwball, but reveals quiet and graceful layers of depth and perhaps even a bit of power within her sharply constructed dialogue.  And as her film-- on face value a slickly quirky independent comedy-- focuses on a microcosm of the industry, it unearths caustic questions and presents difficult to mine themes with ease and confidence.

Bell plays Carol Solomon, a 30-year-old voice coach.  Carol's somewhat an underachiever, mooching off her dad, the legendary voice over artist Sam Soto (Fred Melamed, a real life voice over legend and actor) with the lackadaisical ambition to follow in his footsteps.  We've seen the Carol character on screen countless times before, however typically in the male stoner-glazed variety become the norm by the millennial comedic laws in practice by Judd Apatow.  Bell's Carol is a wonderful variant-- she's awkward but sharp, feminine but slightly rough around the edges, caustic but sweet.  Sam, however, is a well meaning but loutish mensch who discourages such fancy as Carol's ambitions, despite a keen and freshly observed talent (she keeps an archive of interesting voices and accents to anaylze; a funny continuous bit)-- voice over work is a boys-only club and one that Sam intends to be the keeper of keys.

After a fluke recording test session becomes a hit and puts her on the career fast track, Carol learns the competitive and sexist nature of the industry when she is up for a big trailer role-- that for a hilarious Hunger Games-inspired young adult quadrilogy.  Her competition includes not just her father, but also an arrogant "new" voice of a generation, embodied with utter sliminess by Bell's Children's Hospital alum Ken Marino, a womanizing cad named Gustav Warner.  It's fortunate that Bell has a gift for comedy and keeps the chauvinism lectures as a back burner and creates instead and fuzzy and gently humane comedy of manners where it's theme loop around finely-tuned and generously played frivolity.

As business moves swiftly, Carol develops a shaggy-dogged relationship with recording maestro Louis (Demetri Martin), a sweetly awkward hipster.  She also moves in with her caustic sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) and her husband Moe (Rob Corddry) after being booted from dad's house to make room for his much younger girlfriend, a voice over 'groupie' played by Alexandra Holden.  And while In a World... gets distracted from time to time, showing first-time gitters in occasionally losing focus with its extended characters, Bell and her team of performers have such a strong rapport and keen chemistry that the quibbles evaporate the more we spend time with them.  There's a nicely pointed scene between Carol and Louis, where he cuts her off on a tangent with a screeching sound, an ADHP technique to maintain focus; the film perhaps needs it from time to time.

Yet it sticks with a hopeful refrain, one of quiet and slight power and a tinge of depth and indispensable humor.  Of quiet originality and beatific beats as it parcels out themes of female empowerment, father/daughter relationships and Hollywood power politics, In a World... marks a significant debut feature for Bell, who won the Waldo Screenwriting Prize at this years Sundance Film Festival, and proves a versatile and compelling performer.  In a world, at least someday, somehow, she's a star.  B+

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