Lake Bell is one of those character actresses who has been popping up in small roles for the better part of the last decade. Occasionally you’d catch her as one of the protagonist’s friends, or a recurring role on a television series; sometimes she’d even appear as one of the leading ladies (like SURFACE, NBC’s science-fiction series from the mid-2000s, or Rob Corddry’s demented CHILDRENS HOSPITAL). But with IN A WORLD…, Bell finally gets a chance to steal the show out from everybody else – largely because of the fact that she wrote and directed the feature herself.
IN A WORLD… has a delightful premise: Bell, the daughter of the world’s (second) most famous voice-over narrator, finds herself as the first major female voice to become a part of the industry. It’s the kind of story that’s catered perfectly to film-lovers, which explains why it went over so well when it premiered at Sundance earlier this year. It pushes all of the right buttons: cheesy movie trailers with big, melodramatic voice-overs, larger-than-life characters who live the Hollywood lifestyle (even if they’re technically out on the fringes of The Biz) and a handful of delightfully tongue-in-cheek A-list cameos. But the film also has the added bonus of tackling the story from a purely feminine point-of-view, and that is where Bell truly manages to elevate the material – almost certainly subconsciously.
Where the film shines isn’t in its jokes-per-page, nor in its realistic character arcs (though those are absolutely worth noting, because they’re both excellent). What’s most refreshing about IN A WORLD… is Bell’s voice – both literally and figuratively. It’s appropriate that a film which hinges so directly on a story about the distinction between the male and female voice should find its leading lady’s voice as its most powerful tool. From Bell’s personal brand of situational comedy to her naturalistic character dynamics, she has managed to instil this film with a very particular, feminine voice – one which is neither overly direct nor consciously stifled.
The truth is, this is a woman telling a story in her own voice, from her own perspective, and it feels both natural and refreshing. Whether it’s the simple but realistic dynamic between Bell’s Carol and her sister, Dani (played by Michaela Watkins), or the way male characters seem presented through the for-some-reason-rarely-seen “female gaze”, IN A WORLD… feels different – it feels true, and honest, and uncensored. Bell doesn’t settle for a generic voice which would make her indistinguishable from any other director, male or female; she embraces her own voice, one which just so happens to be female. It’s not ham-fisted, or overly cynical, or even particularly showy. It just is. And though many people would argue that gender politics shouldn’t come into the discussion, I personally think it’s worth both pointing out and celebrating.
It’s also important to note that Bell herself tackles the subject herself in the final act of the film, where her own views on this subject become clear. Handouts and political manipulation are not the same as true, personal success. It’s not enough to praise this film for being a female voice – it has to be worthy of praise in and of itself, no matter where it comes from. A voice is a voice, regardless of gender; its perceived quality should not be influenced by such things. Either it’s good, or it isn’t.
Luckily for IN A WORLD…, it is. The cast is absolutely perfect, from Demetri Martin’s bumbling Louis to Alexandra Holden’s good-natured but abrasive Jamie. Bell populates the film with a who’s-who of memorable character actors, including Nick Offerman (who’s been blowing up the last few years, thanks to PARKS AND REC), Rob Corddry (naturally), Fred Melamed (who steals every scene in which he appears) and more. Even the smallest roles get their chance to work a few jokes in.
The movie is funny, the pace is light and the story packs a surprisingly emotional punch. You could do far worse at the movies this summer.