In a World... is a clever, likable comedy that sends up sexism, satirizes Hollywood, examines family ties and features a surprisingly tender romance at its core
Among its many funny bits, this winning film (* * * 1/2 out of four; rated R; expanding Friday nationwide) pointedly takes aim at Valley Girl speak and up-talk. The appeal of these scenes, however, is not simply comic. Writer-director-star Lake Bell posits that ending each phrase in a question mark undermines a woman's power.
And Bell's own power just surged with this whip-smart, deftly written and well-directed first feature.
Not only does Bell have a way with crafting and delivering one-liners, but she's come up with a fresh premise and convincing characters that cleverly spoof the movie industry. And the film has more to offer than laughs. There's a potent theme of female empowerment throughout as it skewers the male-dominated voice-over industry.
Bell's engaging performance is laden with goofy charm. As Carol, Bell lives in a dysfunctional house of mirth. Her father Sam (Fred Melamed) is a funny guy with a resonant voice with which he's made a highly successful living. A voice-over star on the brink of retirement, he's poised to pass the baton to his smarmy successor, Gustav (Ken Marino). Apparently, it never occurs to the self-absorbed Sam that his wisecracking daughter could be a similar force in his field, though she has clearly inherited his talent for vocal cadences and accents.
His warm-up exercise is appropriately "Me me me me," which also sums up Sam's No. 1 concern.
While appealingly relatable and sharp-witted, the underachieving Carol also is kind of a mess. She's thirtysomething and stays in her dad's guest room - until he kicks her out so that his much younger girlfriend can move in. Carol's next stop is a couch in the apartment of her older sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) and Dani's husband Moe (Rob Corddry).
Carol spends her days cheerfully and surreptitiously collecting intriguing vocal patterns and foreign accents on a tiny tape recorder she carries while earning a meager income as a dialect coach.
She gets a big break when a distinctive voice is needed for the trailer of Amazon Games, a big studio franchise about a female warrior, a la The Hunger Games. The studio executive behind the movie (Geena Davis) chooses the lesser-known Carol over Gustav or Sam. The insecure Sam is threatened and his competitive nature goes into overdrive.
Though Carol has a dalliance with the obnoxious Gustav, she's more invested in an awkward, but endearing, romance with geeky audio engineer Louis (Demetri Martin).
(The movie's title refers to the cliched opening phrase identified with famed voice actor Don LaFontaine, who recorded more than 5,000 film trailers before his death in 2008.)
The film's genre-blending is deceptively simple, covering substantial thematic ground. Bell has created a drama about adult daughters and their aging dads, a late-blooming coming-of-age tale, a lively satire, a sweet romantic comedy and a subtly inspiring feminist saga. The least compelling thread involves Dani, a hotel concierge, and a flirtatious patron who threatens the stability of her marriage. It feels like unnecessary padding.
Bell is a genuine talent, a triple threat with a distinctive comic sensibility and a way with Lucille Ball-style physical antics. With any luck, we'll see more of her writing, directing and starring efforts.