In a World…: Sundance Review

In a World...

U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Lake Bell)

An underachieving vocal coach is motivated by her father, the king of movie-trailer voice-overs, to pursue her aspirations of becoming a voiceover star. Amidst pride, sexism and family dysfunction, she sets out to change the voice of a generation. Cast: Lake Bell, Demetri Martin, Rob Corddry, Michaela Watkins, Ken Marino, Fred Melamed.

The world of Hollywood voice-over talent provides a ripe backdrop for Lake Bell’s funny and engaging directorial debut.

Lake Bell makes her writer-director debut in a comedy about Hollywood's voice-over industry.

Lake Bell, who has served as a contributor to The Hollywood Reporter, makes an auspicious writing-directing debut with In a World…, a lively, sometimes very funny comedy set in the world of Hollywood voice-over talent. The rivalries that inform the various relationships here are not just professional but familial, as Bell’s character’s suddenly blooming career inadvertently collides with that of her father, the egotistical king of voice-over. Offering an amusing peek into a seldom-visited corner of showbiz, this likable small-scale effort could kick up some modest theatrical returns with judicious handling and the help of smartly nurtured word-of-mouth.

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The title somewhat obscurely refers to the intro that portentously begins so many trailers for movies set in the future or otherwise distant parts. Here, the man who has undoubtedly uttered these words more than anyone else is Sam Soto (Fred Melamed), the Pavarotti of v.o. Announced as the recipient of this year’s life achievement award in his profession, Sam is both genial and intimidating, a big, bald man in his 60s who tells his daughter Carol (Bell) she must immediately move out of his house because he intends to have his 30ish new girlfriend move in.

Sam often is condescending to Carol, a charming, neurotic live wire who’s always lived in his shadow and isn’t really making ends meet as a vocal coach (she helps guide Eva Longoria through a session in an early scene). She has great delivery herself and is wonderful with accents and dialects (she carries a tape recorder everywhere to record the way people speak) and is generally pretty madcap company. Her older sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) has escaped to live modestly with boyfriend Moe (Rob Corddry), while dorky audio engineer Louis (Demitri Martin) carries a torch in jokey fashion for Carol.

There is something of a sitcom feel to the setup and shtick that pertains to this world, as well as to Dani and Louis’ brightly lit apartment set; many of the characters have a good spiel and fall into comic riffs by instinct. There’s also no shortage of ego flying around, which comes monstrously into play when the moment arrives to choose the v.o. artist for the trailer for the industry’s next giant franchise, Amazon Games, a four-part female-warrior epic.

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At first, Sam bows out, magnanimously passing the baton to his much-younger rival, ladies’ man Gustav Warner (Ken Marino). But despite the longtime tradition of using male voices, Carol jumps into the fray, resulting in a French farce-style series of complications that the first-time director handles adroitly.

Shapely and quick-witted, Bell is a very attractive woman rather in the Gina Gershon mode, all the more so because she behaves as if she doesn’t know it.  When the randy Gustav comes on to her at a party, she seems entirely surprised, and the result of his come-on is one of the film’s comic highlights. On the other hand, she would appear to be well out of the league of the adolescent-looking Louis but doesn’t rule him out. Her self-deprecation provides a constant breeze of fresh air.

The only man Carol really has a problem with is her dad, who becomes so enraged when he learns she might get the Amazon Games gig that he puts himself back in the running. An extended montage of the three finalists preparing to cut their audition recordings is wittily presented as if they were athletes limbering up for the main event, and a private postdecision talk the studio executive (Geena Davis) gives to Carol about the realities for women breaking into this male-dominated domain feels bracingly honest.

Despite the preponderance of jokes and gags and shtick-dependent characters, In a World… never becomes cloying or too cute. Nearly all the actors pop with well-defined personalities. After a long career as a character actor (seven Woody Allen films), Melamed broke out as a quasi-lead in the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man four years ago and formidably dominates here. The fast-talking Martin and Marino nab their share of laughs, while stand-up stalwart Tig Notaro is hilarious as a butch staffer at the recording studio.