It’s hard to be negative about Lake Bell’s In a World… The film is well-written and extremely well-acted. The story takes place in a very specific section of show business that is seldom- if ever- talked about, making it inherently more interesting than the average comedy. There are genuine laughs, as well as very real emotions. And underneath it all is a general positivity about the characters- and perhaps humanity, in general- that often just made me smile. By the end of the film, I felt upbeat and in good humor.
So, when I say that the film is far from perfect, please keep in mind that the film has a lot going for it. And yet, strangely enough, the negative aspects of the film all seem to stem from the positive. Bell’s commitment to creating real, three dimensional characters she too often gets distracted from the primary story in order to flesh out supporting characters that- while interesting- aren’t as important as the protagonist.
The story revolves around Carol, a young woman whose father is a giant in the voice-over industry. After the death of Don LaFontaine (the originator of the famous movie trailer phrase “In a world…”), the industry is looking for his successor. There are several possibilities, including Carol’s father. She herself is interested in getting into the family business, but studios don’t really seem interested in having a female voice-over artist for their films.
Over the course of the movie, Carol slowly starts to make her way up in the VO industry, making friends and enemies along the way. And every one of those people is allowed at least one scene that fleshes out who they are and what they want. This includes the sheepish sound guy that has a crush on Carol, as well as Carol’s father’s young girlfriend, Carol’s sister and her husband, who are having marital issues. There is also the brash and arrogant rising VO star that starts a romantic relationship with Carol while also being a protege of her father’s. And it goes on and on like that, until Carol starts to become the least interesting character on screen.
Ensemble films can be fun, but it requires balance and sacrifice. One of the key sacrifices that a director must make is a lead character. If I were to ask you who the lead was in Magnolia or Nashville or Short Cuts, you would shrug. There isn’t one. This is where In A World… shoots itself in the foot. It wants to give every character their due without sacrificing a central figure. In the end, everything becomes muddled and, while I found the film enjoyable, it was difficult to be totally invested with any of the supporting characters because I was told that Carol is the one I’m supposed to be paying attention to. And I don’t find Carol that interesting, because there are several supporting characters that I enjoyed spending time with more.
This made the film frustrating at times, but the production, writing, and acting are so good that the frustration faded. The cast is a who’s who of alternative comedians and actors, such as Demetri Martin, Nick Offerman, Tig Notaro, Rob Corddry, Ken Marina, Michaela Watkins, and more. They all turn in funny and sensitive performances, as does Bell as Carol. With her character, I really got a sense of a woman trying to figure out just exactly where she fits in. It’s a quality that is hard to get right, but Lake Bell, in both the writing and the performance, does.
Perhaps my favorite character and performance is Sam, Carol’s father, played by Fred Melamed. Anybody that has seen the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man can attest to Melamed’s ability to convey casual arrogance. Sam is a man of ego, but also true gentleness. He is often very selfish, but that doesn’t preclude his genuine caring about those that he loves. These characteristics seem contradictory, but they’re the exact type of thing that we all deal with in ourselves every day. And Melamed manages to bring it all together in a complete, un-self conscious performance. It would have been easy to for Melamed to judge his character, but he refuses to do so, and the film is infinitely better for it.
And it is because of a character like Sam and the film’s fair and honest treatment of him that makes the shortcomings of In a World… more than worth putting up with. The humor and humanity with which Lake Bell deals with even the most unappealing characters is very refreshing. Many of the flaws of the film can be easily put down to it being Bell’s debut. And most directors’ first films do not have the basis of quality that this movie has. I’m excited to see her next film, but, in the meantime, we have In a World… If you have the opportunity to see it, I recommend that you do.