Joining the contemporary collective of female filmmakers laying in the wake of the multi-hyphenate works of Lena Dunham, American actress Lake Bell makes her directorial debut with In a World (2013), a project she also writes and stars in. Always the ditsy foil or sidelined supporting foil in bland romantic comedies, from No Strings Attached (2011) to Over Her Dead Body (2008), Bell makes a considerably notable change of career pace, penning a film that – at least attempts – to shed light on and examine the entrenched sexism and unwritten gender structures of a seemingly minuscule area of the entertainment industry.
Bell plays Carol, an underachieving voice coach anxiously tucked deep in the shadow of her egotistical and deeply unsympathetic father Sam (A Serious Man’s Fred Melamed), the newfound king of the voice-over industry since the death of real-life, undisputed ‘godfather’ of vocal acting Don Lafontaine (who we see stock footage of in the opening credits). Kicked out of her family home to make way for Sam’s much younger girlfriend, Carol happens upon her first voice-over job with the help of her goofy sound engineer colleague Louis (Demetri Martin), a narration for a trailer whose producers she instantly impresses.
Despite being repeatedly told by her father that “the industry doesn’t crave a female sound”, Carol’s career begins a steady incline when she is put into consideration for a new quadrilogy of films – playfully titled The Amazon Games, and starring Cameron Diaz – that has the potential to be an extremely lucrative franchise and the opportunity to finally get the recognition she craves. Carol’s confidence is challenged, however, when her father and his youthful protégé Gustav (Ken Marino) decide to compete in the race to become the voice of what is touted as a supposed rebirth of epic cinema, a genre for which the widely known trailer adage “In a world…” is a jokingly accepted tactic for instant audience engagement.
Notable, predominantly, for its niche, diminutive perspective, Bell’s In a World sets itself up as a satire of the modern cinematic climate on a smaller scale, where backstabbing is rife, work scarce and competition fierce. The premise is rich and augmented by a meta-infused edge, yet such an immediately tight introduction is quickly squandered by Bell’s screenplay, which is both easily distracting and not as perceptive as it thinks it is. Whereas a more confident, perhaps even more recognised, filmmaker would have mounted this exposé of female frustrations in a predominantly male workplace on a more deeper and interrogative level, Bell drowns out the central focus on lame humour and too many subplots not accommodated by the slim 85-minute runtime.
The marital woes of Carol’s sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) and husband Moe (Rob Corddry) is as draining to watch as it feels on the central narrative, as is the painfully unfunny caricature of Gustav, whose vocal range is as toned as the body he so fervently admires. However prescient Bell’s ideas are, it seems worryingly ironic how a drama about a woman finding her voice can be made by a filmmaker who quickly misplaces hers. Her modus operandi only really comes to light as the story concludes, yet the overall resolution to her empowering thesis appears heavy-handed when, during In a World’s final moments, Carol tells a group of disciples to “make a statement” as Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World kicks in.
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