Is it possible to make a feature film about a woman's struggle to break into the upper echelons of movie trailer voice-overs? I wouldn't have thought so either, but here we are. You may know Lake Bell as Dr. Cat Black from the enjoyably strange Childrens Hospital on Adult Swim (or as the "best lady friend" in several romantic comedies) but her writing-and-directing debut is a seemingly standard underdog story that also manages to touch on daddy issues, female empowerment and the inherent silliness of an industry where people with booming voices are paid millions of dollars to read words into microphones.
Bell plays Carol Solomon, a vocal coach who still lives with her voice-over legend father. Despite a job that includes teaching Eva Longoria how to employ a Cockney accent, she dreams of thriving in what has traditionally been a male-dominated field. In a wise decision, Bell's quest for legitimacy isn't imbued with unrealistic importance. She's trying to find a place in the world, but it's not a life-or-death scenario. She just wants to be happy -- as does almost everyone else in the film -- and that makes their labors considerably more relatable.
In a World isn't packed with meaty substance, but it also avoids being flighty (or devolving into a joke delivery machine). Despite the occasional illogical story leap (Carol's rise to the top of her profession occurs alarmingly fast) and some clunky exposition (yes, every character in the movie, we haven't forgotten that starting a trailer with "in a world..." is the long-lost gold standard), a series of engaging characters keep the film enjoyable and grounded in reality. Basically, you want everyone to succeed because you like them so darn much.
Directing is not exactly Bell's strength, but she's smart enough to gather a bunch of talented comedic actors and let them play in front of the camera. Eschewing melodrama, the characters in In a World respond to their problems in quiet, poignant ways. In particular, a conflict-resolving scene between married couple Rob Corddry and Michaela Watkins is brilliantly short and sweet. There's no swelling music or unnecessary build-up; the power comes from two well-defined characters and a smart script, getting right to the point and leaving the audience a little teary-eyed in the process.
Then again, part of the enjoyment may come from appreciating a cast packed with alternative comedy superstars and recognizable faces. Tig Notaro and Nick Offerman pop up as engineers in Bell's recording studio; fellow Childrens Hospital star Ken Marino plays the "face" of the voice-over world that Bell unwittingly robs of several key jobs. Fred Melamed (better known as Sy Ableman in A Serious Man, one of the more underrated performances of the last decade) gets to show off his disgustingly hairy back and shoulders as Carol's legendary father.
But the real star of the film is Demetri Martin. No longer insufferably quirky (he's toned it down to "regular quirky"), the 40-year-old comedian shines as Bell's unrequited love interest. He hits all the usual notes (awkward phone conversations, lame attempts to ask her out) but never seems crushed by his failures. Perhaps obliviously, perhaps purposefully, he pursues Bell with vigor and a quiet sort of confidence. It's a refreshing take on burgeoning nerdy relationships; slightly peculiar dudes shouldn't have to tumble ass-backwards into every cinematic romance.
I'm not sure if Lake Bell has any other stories to tell, but In a World is a solid debut that hits more than a few emotional high notes. At the very least, she's put her comedic Rolodex to good use.