What’s in a voice? Power, for one thing. The power to tell people things -- anything from an update on a global crisis to the general gist of a young adult movie franchise. This idea is at the center of Lake Bell’s hilarious, sincere and boldly feminist comedy “In a World,” which she wrote, directed and stars in. The film recently scored an Indie Spirit nomination for Best First Screenplay.
Carol (Bell) is a vocal coach eking out a living in Los Angeles. She’s in the shadow of her father, Sam Soto (Fred Melamed), one of the bigwigs in the field of movie-trailer voiceovers, a profession Carol would love to break into if it weren’t so male-dominated and if Dad weren’t so offhandedly unsupportive of her ambitions. But when she wins a gig voicing the preview for a “children’s romantic comedy” (ha!), and then another and another, Carol starts to think she might have some traction in a world where those very words -- “In a World” -- are always intoned by men.
Bell is a warm and winning presence in the film, and supported by a well-cast array of funny actors and professional comedians alike. As my boyfriend rightly pointed out, juggling a number of comical and disparate personalities and still maintaining tonal verisimilitude is a tough job for a director, but one that Bell handles adeptly. There’s Ken Marino (“Burning Love”), whose silky-silly demeanor and quasi-Jersey Boy charm works nicely in the role of Gustav Warner, the conceited would-be heir of epic trailer voiceovers; Rob Corddry (“Hot Tub Time Machine”), whose self-deprecating everyman vibe is endearing as the neglected husband of Carol’s sister (Michaela Watkins); and Demetri Martin (“Taking Woodstock”), here playing a nerdy soundman who’s long been in silent, agonized love with Carol and her husky voice. His post-production colleagues Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”) and Tig Notaro (“The Sarah Silverman Program”) push him to make a move.
Melamed, an underused actor, embraces the role of Sam with a cut-throat aggression that slices through his smooth baritone. (Anyone who’s heard Melamed glide along the name “Sy Ableman” in the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man” knows he’s perfectly cast here.) Bell has bravely written the part as savagely unlikable, and that’s how Melamed plays it. In one scene Sam exchanges some ickily objectifying words about women while in a men’s sauna; in another, he squashes Carol’s excitement -- and attempts to squash her chances -- at landing the crème-de-la-crème voiceover gig for “The Amazon Games” franchise. If Sam emerges as the villain of “In a World,” he’s also where the very funny film’s pathos lies. Misogyny and emotional abuse usually come down a long family line of, well, misogynistic emotional abusers.
“In a World” sticks to the beats of many romantic comedies, but it importantly places the feminist drive for self-fulfillment above any of the film’s romantic scenarios. It also tackles feminism from a unique angle, i.e. the significance of voice -- a facet of self-presentation -- for women. There’s a reason that the movie-trailer voiceover is a male domain, and it’s not just limited to trailers, nor as Sam densely states is it about people not yearning for “a female sound.”
It has to do with authority. A smart and spot-on cameo by Geena Davis near the end of the film nails this idea into place: Women need to hear other women as the voices of confident, in-control authority in order to break down the ingrained idea that men are the ones, literally and figuratively, telling us what’s going on.
One of the most hilarious offshoots of this thesis is Bell’s skewering of an epidemic: The “sexy baby” voice. The squeaky, childish uptalk that has been adopted en masse by the women of reality TV, and by extension many impressionable girls and women not on TV, is where the hope for authoritative female voices goes to die. In one of the most gut-busting scenes in “In a World,” a young woman, like, totally asks Carol where she can, like, find a smoothie?
Without missing a beat, Carol replies in turn: “OmigodIamsosorry, I like totally don’t know where you can find a smoothie around here.” But this joke isn’t played for cruelty. As Bell shows, intelligent women can be victims of this noxious habit too, and what’s really called for is a voice of strength and kindness to show them that they all -- we all -- can be so much better than that.
"In a World" hits theaters August 9, via Roadside Attractions.