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Josh Reviews In a World…

August 30th, 2013
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Before I went to see In a World…, I knew who Lake Bell was.  I certainly recognized her face from here and there.  I had nothing against her as an actress, but mostly I knew her as someone involved in projects I had absolutely no interest in seeing (What Happens in Vegas, It’s Complicated, No Strings Attached, the TV show Surface, I could go on…).

Well, forgive me for under-estimating her, because I just saw the new film, In a World…, that Ms. Bell wrote, directed, produced, and starred in, and it is magnificent.  One of my favorite films of the year, no question.  Consider me now a huge fan of Lake Bell!!

In In a World…, Ms. Bell stars as Carol Solomon, a young woman trying to get work in the voice-over biz.  Carol is the daughter of voice-over legend Sam Soto (Fred Melamed), but she goes by a different last name in order to try to have her own identity, separate from her well-known (at least, well-known in the voice-over community) father.  Sam doesn’t believe there’s much room in the voice-over business for non-male voices, and so he has thrown his support behind, not his daughter, but a different hot-shot protege, Gustav Warner (Ken Marino).

The title of the film comes from the famous phrase that real-life voice-over artist, the late Don LaFontaine, used to begin many, many movie trailers.  The central dramatic moment in In a World… comes when the studio behind a blockbuster new epic decides that the time has come to bring back that famous phrase in the trailer for their new film.  Suddenly Carol, Sam, and Gustav are all competing for this one voice-over gig.

In a World… might sound very “inside,” in terms of its focus on the world of voice-over talents, something I suspect the vast majority of movie-enjoying Americans have never given a second thought.  And, indeed, for me a big part of the fun of In a World… was seeing the curtain thrown back on that world, that particular sub-culture of movie-making.  But as in all the best films, that extremely specific subject serves as the setting for a very universal story.  If you know who Don LaFontaine was and got a chuckle at the title of this movie, you’re going to love this film.  But even if you’ve never heard that name before and don’t care a whit about voice-over actors, you’re still going to love this movie.

Because at its heart, In a World… is really nothing more than a sweet, compelling character-study of Carol, a goofy, amiable, somewhat lost young woman looking for her place in the world and chasing after her father’s respect.  Ms. Bell has written a phenomenal role for herself.  Carol is a wonderful creation, an extraordinarily likable young woman who seems like she’d be a ton of fun to hang out with — she’s silly and funny and sweet.  Carol feels like an innocent in many ways, but Ms. Bell never turns her into too cartoonish a woman-child.  She seems naive and hesitant when it comes to romance, but on the other hand the movie doesn’t make a huge deal out of her having sex with someone (not the person we’re rooting for her to end up with, though!) at the mid-point of the movie.  This is a very fine line to find, and Ms. Bell walks it perfectly.  She gives herself some laugh-out-loud moments in the film (some of Ms. Bell’s impressions in the movie are really terrific), but she also allows herself to be the straight-woman to the many other great actors and comedic talents with whom she has surrounded herself.

And holy cow, what an ensemble she has assembled.  I loved getting to see the great Fred Melamed (Sy Ableman himself!!) get such a substantial role as Carol’s father Sam.  Mr. Melamed is tremendous in the film.  Sam is cruel to his daughter in the way people often are, unintentionally, to the ones they love.  But we also never doubt that, in his heart, Sam does love his daughter.  He truly thinks he’s doing the best he can for her by giving her what he feels is realistic advice — even though Carol (and the audience) sees it as his being continually discouraging to her.  Mr. Melamed has the vocal chops to be convincing as the man at the top of the voice-over artist pyramid, and he’s able to play the dramatic moments with the same effortless ease with which he handles the comedic moments.  It’s a wonderful performance.

Party Down (click here for my review of that brilliant, cancelled-too-soon TV show) made me a fan for life of Ken Marino, and I’ve enjoyed seeing him pop up in a lot of great comedies in the past few years.  Here, Mr. Marino plays Gustav, and he is fantastic.  The character of Gustav could be the easy villain of the piece — the rich, arrogant young voice-over performer who things he has it all and knows it all — and the handsome Mr. Marino brings a great, greasy smarminess to the role.  But he always keeps Gustav centered a human being, and none of the things Gustav says or does in the film are too over-the-top evil.  He’s a bit of a schmuck, to be sure, but not the type of despicable villain one often sees in romantic films, to give someone for our hero or heroine to get the best of.  Credit here too goes to Ms. Bell’s sharp script for not pushing Gustav too hard into movie-villain territory.  There are moments in the film when I sort of liked Gustav, and when he feels betrayed by Sam late in the movie, I sympathized with him.

One of my favorite aspects of the film was the B-story of Carol’s sister, Dani (Michaela Watkins) and her martial troubles with her husband Moe (Rob Corddry).  This sounds like it could be a very dour story-line, but Ms. Bell keeps a lightness to everything that I really appreciated.  Both Ms. Watkins and Mr. Corddry are fantastic, and they each have created such wonderful, fully-realized characters.  Both Dani and Moe make some bad decisions in the film, but there’s a sweetness to both characters that keeps us rooting for them both.  Just as Gustav is kept as an understandable human being, neither Dani nor Moe becomes “the bad guy” in the story.  Rob Corddry often plays the abrasive, loud guy, but here he curbs those excesses from his performance and makes Moe a very sweet, sort of schlubbish fellow.  Dani feels more like the smart, successful one in the relationship, but the film doesn’t fall into any of the usual woman-upset-at-the-man-for-not-growing-up-and-making-something-of-himself oh-so-familiar plot points.  (In a nice bit of subtlety, Moe is a stay-at-home goofball, but he is not a good-for-nothing loser.  He is employed — he just works at home as an editor.)

It’s funny, just last week I was re-watching Wanderlust (click here for my review), in which Ken Marino and Michaela Watkins played husband and wife (as Paul Rudd’s character’s terrible brother and sister-in-law).  It was fun to see them both featured so heavily in In a World…!  (Though not in the same scenes.)  I also really loved the close friendship that Carol has with Moe.  Watching the film, I half expected either sort of flirtation to develop between Moe and Carol that would eventually get them into trouble… OR for Carol to turn on Moe once he and her sister start having problems.  Luckily, neither cliche plot point happened.  Instead, Ms. Bell captured a more more nuanced, real relationship between the characters.  We don’t know the origin of Carol and Moe’s friendship, but we don’t need to know.  The film gives us everything we need to know about these two (please refer back to what I was saying, in the previous paragraph, about these being fully-realized characters), and I loved that Carol still was close to Moe in the latter part of the film and the lengths she goes to in order to help him (and her sister).

I haven’t even gotten to the rest of the film’s great cast.  Demetri Martin, like Rob Corddry, sheds a lot of his usual too-cool-for-school persona to play the role of Louis, the sweet (I know I keep using that word, but it really does apply to so many of these characters!) audio technician Louis, who has a crush on Carol.  Nick Offerman (Ron effin’ Swanson!) has a small role but some fun moments as Louis’ partner; and comedian Tig Notaro has an even smaller role but also a few key, great moments.  There are some fun big-names who cameo as themselves, whose identities I won’t spoil here. I’ll just say that the actress who appears when we finally see the big Amazon Games trailer was just perfect.

I was totally taken by In a World… and the funny, sweet (yep, I used that word again!) group of characters Lake Bell has created.  The movie is funny and has real emotional heft, without ever teetering too far into farce or schmaltz.  The emotional stakes feel real, but none of the scenes ever go too far into depressing-downer territory.  On the contrary, the film is very funny and quite endearing.  I can’t believe this is the work of a first-time writer/director!

In a World… is a very small-scale indie movie, and I am fearful of over-selling it.  But in a world where one big-budget summer movie after another has left me cold this year, this type of endearing little character piece hit me right in the sweet spot.  (Very similarly to the way another terrific little indie film, The Way Way Back, really grabbed me a few weeks ago…)  I can’t recommend this movie enough, friends.  Go track it down, I implore you!

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