So, apparently the Russian community is very tight.
“In a World” where Lake Bell is a female director playing a woman who is a woman vocal coach named Carol Solomon, who strives to make it in the huge world of vocal performances. She lives in the shadow of her father, Sam Soto, played by Fred Melamed, who does believe in her work, but also reminds her that the voice acting business is not in the market for female voice artists. This comedy says much more than that, though.
When Solmon is kicked out of the house and moves in with her sister, she starts down a journey in another case of trying to break into the old boy’s club. Solomon dares to beat the odds, be the best around and…become the trailer voice-over artist for the trailer of the upcoming “Amazon Games” quadrilogy. Yes, this is a thing. This also means becoming the next voice to utter the words “In a world” during a movie trailer.
In what I see as partially a love letter to the late and great voice-over master himself, Don LaFontaine, “In a World” intrigued me through its premise alone. Vocal performance is a talent I follow and rarely do we get feature length movies that look at the process of working with the voice. Many a time we’ll watch an animated movie, cartoon or TV show and suddenly go ‘Hey, I know that voice.’ This movie takes a look at the behind the scenes work for an up-and-comer, but “In a World” is a pleasant surprise of a movie that pokes fun at the industry without getting too preachy with its own message.
Like many sons and daughters, Carol exists as a fraction of her parent’s glowing prowess, a representation of one trying to step into the limelight without being compared to the parent’s ongoing success. Carol is no pushover and never do we see her play the gender card and go on about Hollywood keeping the girls down or ranting about feminism. No, this film is not about women’s lib or starting a revolution. Good for that, as that message would have been muddled underneath a well-directed and written independent film.
From the start, we’re given a sort of semi-tribute to the late LaFontaine through some commercials he did, what vocal performers thought of him trail-blalzing the way for voice acting and his overall legacy. Right away, you’ll notice a sort of reverence for LaFontaine. He was known to many as that movie voice over guy who pops up in trailers but, like voice actors in cartoons, anime, video games and the like, rarely do we get to see the man or woman behind the voice. This film is a nice change of pace and takes a look at that.
We are told and see one of Carol’s many quirks is her accents: she tries to record a new dialect each time she overhears or passes one, whether by trying to get the person to answer specific questions or hide her recorder. It’s her quirky behavior in addition to being motivated by her passion to be the best that makes me like this character. The fact that she’s been a vocal coach living in the shadow of her much more famous father makes her drive seem more believable and not just a random task for her to accomplish by movie’s end: this profession drove her father to success and now she’s in it to prove her worth.
Sam, meanwhile, is up to receive a lifetime achievement award for his work and though he’s compared to Don by others, he’s also told that he is not as good. Sam mentions that there’s little to no market for female voice actors and is more interested in his new, younger lady friend, Jamie, played by Alexandra Holden, so he gives Carol the boot. No worry, though. She has until the evening to be cleared out.
Soon, Carol ends up moving in with her sister, Dani, played by Michaela Watkins from Saturday Night Live, and her husband, Moe, played by Dr. Blake Downs himself, Rob Corddry.
Huh. Children’s Hospital now has TWO of its main actors starring in this film.
Despite being put out of her parent’s home, Carol continues working, seeking accents from anyone she can and receiving the help of the producers at the Sound Mix a Lot studio, including Louis, played by Demitri Martin, and Hernes, played by the man, Ron Swanson himself, Nick Offerman. Louis, as evidenced by anything he says or does when Carol is mentioned or around, is pining after Carol, but does keep it professional. To the point where he will keep talking on the phone to her even when Hermes knows Carol already hung up. But because he can’t be straightforward from the start, the quirky desk girl pines for him when he’s available. Plus, let’s face it, if all guys and gals were straightforward with their feelings, romance films would be pretty short.
Carol is encouraged to try out for the aforementioned Amazon Games role, the producers saying that she’s perfect for a quirky, modern pick. Speaking of her quirks, she carries them wherever she goes, whether when just going for a walk or bothering Dani at work. When an Irishman stops by Dani’s job, Carol just has to have the voice, so she asks Dani to ask him some questions for the purpose of getting his accent.
Sam, meanwhile, has put all his chips into his successor, Gustav Warner, played by Ken Marino. Warner is cocky, to be sure, but like both Sam and Carol, he has the voice to back up his cockiness and is also in consideration for the Amazon Games. Warner hosts a party for folks in the area, and it’s here that he and Carol meet for the first time, though neither knows they’re vying for the same role.
As this happens, Moe listens to the tape Dani made with her asking the Irishman questions, and she mentions that there’s no boyfriend in her life. More on that later.
When Louis still does not manage to talk to Carol at the party, he’s left dragging the drunk desk girl to his home. Carol, meanwhile, stumbles upon a secret passageway in Gustav’s home and finds it littered with animal skins and items that seem to come from years of traveling. Gustav finds her and they, again, without knowing who each other is, have some nighttime fun.
Meanwhile, Dani returns home and overhears her tape being played, while Moe, with few to no words, gets up and leaves. Again, more on that later.
The morning after, Carol awkwardly makes her way from Gustav’s home to do some more recording. Louis mentions that Gustav’s maid saw Carol leave and spilled the details- the Russian community is very tight- so now he’s in a funk and takes it out on the staff. In about as mild a way as Demitri Martin can, anyway.
Carol and Dani decide to have some sister time, which involves swapping secrets over cheese and television. Turns out Dani’s little conversation with the Irishman goes deeper than the tape reveals.
One of the few times we get a big family moment, Carol and Dani have dinner with Sam and his girlfriend and we get some insight into the family’s past. Mom passed away awhile ago. Sam still doubts about Carol’s ability and even more so after she reveals that she is in contention for the Amazon Games trailer voice over.
So what will Sam do? Of course, he throws his own name in the ring, so we have a three way battle between father, daughter and one night fling as Sam, Carol and Gustav all vie for the position.
Now that Carol is in the game for real, Louis takes the time to finally admit his feelings to her during their training to the point that they end up bonding over karaoke and keeping each other at night. By talking, mind you.
So we finally get to the night of the award ceremony where Sam is slated to receive his lifetime achievement award. The crowd gets a sneak peek at the trailer for Amazon Games, but whose voice brings life to the trailer? Well, that would give away the ending, so let’s leave the plot there.
“In a World” is a very smart film and Lake Bell proves she has what it takes to make a name for herself in her directorial debut. I’m impressed with the film’s pacing. It moves along at the steady tone one expects for an independent film and allows the audience to soak in as much of the scene as possible, never in a rush to move the film along for the sake of time.
Rather than rely on tired old romantic clichés or sappy music, the direction allows the actors to play out the scenes and lets them dictate the moment rather than forced drama being forced upon the viewer. This is the exact opposite of what I got from “The Butler” and yes, they’re two completely different films, but it’s one of the most recent films I’ve seen where the direction played a major issue with the way tense or dramatic scenes played.
Bell structured the film in a way that allows each of the characters gets their moment and never did any side character feel overused or shoved into a scene. Hermes and Cher, played by Tig Notaro, as the sound producers are funny together and help keep Louis in check during his freak outs, but also push him into asking out Carol. Despite the short screen time they’re given, the relationship between the three producers, the desk girl and Carol feels believable and I was convinced that this crew had been doing vocal performance work for a long time.
This goes hand in hand with well written dialogue. The quirky characters, great banter and direction reminded me a lot of Juno when watching this film. Sam and Carol feel like a real father and daughter with Sam regaling in his old days while trying to remain encouraging to Carol despite also kicking her out of the house. When Carol and Dani have their sister talks over the telephone or while watching television and eating cheese, there’s a genuine sense of camaraderie.
And I like that the family is not a perfect unit with both Carol and Dani holding grudges against Sam for never fully giving them credit for what they’ve accomplished. Sam has his flaws, but he’s not a bad person and Fred Melamed sells his role as a father trying to maintain a relationship with his daughter while simultaneously competing with her.
Side note, Sam bears a striking resemblance to Stu, Stephen Tobolowsky’s character on Californication. Not sure why, but that stuck with me throughout the film.
Louis and Carol’s eventual attachment has traits of the classic love story: boy likes girl from afar, ends up with other girl he likes but doesn’t fall for, boy and true love bond and they get together. But not entirely. They don’t exactly become an official couple since they prefer to keep things professional and I don’t recall them ever becoming intimate, either. Instead, they bond over karaoke and talking about what pills will help them get to sleep quicker. Louis is awkward, yes, and I do think sometimes he goes on a bit longer than necessary, but he doesn’t feel like an unrealistic character.
On that note, none of the men do. Some have said that Sam and Gustav are archetypes of the typical man, but I don’t see it. They aren’t overt sexists or chauvinists, nor do they compete with Carol solely because of her gender, but because they feel they’re both better suited for the role. As I mentioned, they can be boastful, but they have the vocal talent to back up their words.
Also, Gustav has some of the funnier moments in the film, such as when he and Carol kiss and he begins by making out with her nose. This is followed up by another funny moment, the morning after, where Carol struggles to get her bra off of Gustav’s hands when he’s still asleep.
And this leads me into Carol herself, who Bell plays with great variance in her humor. In one moment, she can mock a random girl she meets on the street or talking about a sexy baby voice, but then when in the recording booth, she sounds like a voice that will get you pumped to see a movie based on the trailer alone.
Carol is not overbearing, but overcoming. Her motivation is to be the best, to make something of herself. She isn’t driven because she’s a woman, she’s not trying to end a feud with her father and her gender isn’t treated as a handicap. She’s a strong woman who has what it takes to compete in the vocal performance field.
As I said before, the movie has great social commentary on the roles of women in voice over professions. I’d counter that there are a plethora of great female voice talents out there now like Tara Strong, Wendee Lee and Arleen Sorkin, but the film makes a good point when it mentions that audiences generally don’t hear a woman doing a trailer for a movie. Then again, nowadays, a lot of movie trailers usually just have dialogue or narration from the movie.
There’s a lot to be said about the role vocal performance plays and the power behind it, but I’ll save that for the end and get my one nitpick out of the way.
The one flaw I have with this film is the subplot with Moe and Dani. If they had just been there as support for Carol and giving her a place to stay, I’d have no problem with it. However, the couple is given scenes that ultimately add nothing to the plot. For example, a British girl living in the same building needs to take a shower since hers does not work, and Moe makes a point of calling Dani to make sure she won’t be home in the time it will take the neighbor to take her shower.
In addition, Dani’s tryst with the Irishman and Moe leaving, while a tender moment, also have no effect on the overall story. That said, I do like the moment where Dani comes in and finds Moe listening to the tape. There’s no melodramatic music playing and Dani doesn’t try to fight it or start an argument. She simply falls to the ground and cries when she realizes she’s been caught red handed.
It’s a stark scene with nothing going on in the background as Moe leaves their home with Dani making a half hearted attempt to keep him from going. Good direction, but I think it’s just there for the sake of creating easy drama. This could have been dropped from the film and nothing would have been lost.
“In a World” is an entertaining movie that focuses on an aspect of performance that does not get as much attention as it should. It has memorable, relatable characters and a plot that challenges Hollywood norms, but also knows when to avoid becoming preachy. Not once does Carol feel like a victim and even more than that, there’s an interesting twist that goes along with the questions raised about gender roles in vocal performance.
In what could have been a film that treated the female gender as a handicap, Bell instead crafts a well woven tale about a character who strives to emerge from the shadows and make something out of her passion. I am much looking forward to what Lake Bell does next. A surprise enjoyment for me, “In a World” is a film I would absolutely recommend you check out.