When was the last time you saw a movie trailer with a female voice-over? (OK, pretend that movie trailers still have voice-overs.) Have you ever? Their nonexistence may make you skeptical of Lake Bell’s In a World…, an occasionally weighty comedy about a woman aspiring to become successful in the business despite the discouragement of her father. He’s a VO king, nearly as highly regarded as the late Don LaFontaine (who coined this film’s titular phrase). “The industry does not crave a female sound,” Dad tells her—before kicking her out to let his 30-year-old girlfriend move in.
Because Bell, the film’s writer, director, and star, addresses the issue early on, it’s easier to give the story a chance, reassured that it doesn’t need a giant reality check. Bell plays Carol, a freelance vocal coach and daughter of Sam (Fred Melamed), who not only isn’t supportive of her choices, he claims she has an “emotional handicap.” Carol doesn’t make enough money to live on her own, so she crashes with her sister, Dani (Michaela Watkins), and Dani’s husband, Moe (Rob Corddry). (You may recognize much of the cast from the Corddry-created series Childrens Hospital.) And she’s thrown the occasional gig from friend/sound engineer Louis (Demetri Martin), such as helping Eva Longoria (playing herself) not sound like a “retarded pirate” when trying to do a Cockney accent.
Louis, who says that in a voicemail, then apologizes to Carol at length for derogatorily using the word “retarded,” an example of the low-key humor that Bell laces throughout the script. Fed to seasoned comedic actors, the jokes, though nearly constant, make In a World… feel breezy and realistic, like hanging out with your funny friends instead of watching a strenuously clever sitcom. You buy every conversation, including the interactions between industry colleagues that often turn from friendly to cutthroat in a flash.
Rarely does “weighty” mean “labored.” Bell rounds out Carol’s story with relationship angst afflicting a handful of characters that’s fluid instead of seeming like padding. There’s strain, for instance, in Dani and Moe’s marriage; when he finds evidence that Dani has likely cheated on him, he’s stunned, and Bell keeps her still camera on him for a beat longer than you expect, a nice touch that drives home his devastation. Carol, meanwhile, is so focused on and anxious about her career that she seems perplexed when a VO veteran—who doesn’t know who she is—repeatedly tells her at a party that she’s pretty. Then, of course, there’s her and Dani’s disgust at their father’s choice of young girlfriend, whom they refer to as “the groupie.”
The film’s heart, though, is about a woman unafraid—well, mostly unafraid—to battle sexism and excited to, against the odds, make headway in a male-dominated business. You root for Carol because she’s talented but modest, regularly pushing herself yet easily overcome with self-doubt. She’s friendly and caring, yet quick to make fun of OMG! young women whose squealed conversation is “like if a Beanie Baby could talk.” In other words, she’s real. At the end of the film, Carol’s teaching a class, and says to her students, “Let’s make a statement. Now, who’s ready to be heard?” Considering her transformation from sexy bit roles to auteur, it looks like Bell is.