Lake Bell has been an actress to watch, at least as far back as 2008, when she single-handedly turned the otherwise dismal comedy “Over Her Dead Body” into something far better than it would have been without her. Now she’s making her debut as a writer-director with “In a World … ,” a movie that feels like a very promising first draft that went directly into production without a rewrite.
It’s rare to complain that a movie has too many ideas, but it feels as though Bell took every last notecard off of her bulletin board and crammed them into a single screenplay. Set in the world of movie-trailer voice-over artists, “In a World…” examines father-daughter relationships, women who deflect their own power by talking like “sexy babies,” the limits of extra-marital flirting, and Hollywood sexism.
Any one or two of these topics could have easily sustained a film of their own, but Bell throws in so many concepts and characters and relationships and dramatic turning points that “In a World…” ultimately resembles an overfilled bowl of cereal, one that you can’t stick your spoon in without making a mess.
Bell stars as Carol Solomon, a dialect coach and would-be voiceover artist. (We see her ply the first of these trades opposite her “Dead Body” co-star Eva Longoria, playing herself, who’s struggling to do a Cockney accent for a gangster movie.)
Carol’s father Sam (Fred Melamed, “A Serious Man”) was one of the giants of the v.o industry, second only to his lifelong rival Don LaFontaine. (The real-life LaFontaine, whose death is a plot point here, is the man behind those legendary “In a world … ” trailer narrations.)
Sam kicks Carol out of the house so that his much younger girlfriend Jamie (Alexandra Holden) can move in, so she crashes with her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) and her husband Moe (Rob Corddry). Being on her own inspires her to start getting v.o. gigs, which puts her in direct rivalry with the arrogant Gustav (Ken Marino), who has taken the reins from Sam as the industry’s hot voice guy.
When a new “Hunger Games”-esque quadrilogy announces its intention to bring “In a world … ” back to trailers, both Carol and Gustav audition for the gig; Sam, who had previously stepped back so Gustav could get the job, jumps back in the ring to keep Carol from snagging the prestigious opportunity. (He had earlier counseled her that women’s voices didn’t have the range required to narrate movie trailers.)
In addition to this main plot thread, we get Carol’s involvements with Gustav and with nerdy sound engineer Louis (Demetri Martin); Dani and Moe struggling over her attraction to a charming Irishman (Jason O’Mara); and Carol’s ongoing struggle, as a trained vocal artist, with women who speak in a high register and end every sentence as though it were a question.
There’s so much to like here, from Bell’s witty dialogue to her skill with actors; you’d expect that Corddry and Watkins would be funny, which they are, but both performers also go to rather dramatic places in a very convincing and captivating way. Bell is also a compassionate filmmaker, never letting Sam or Gustav become two-dimensional villains while making Jamie unexpectedly intelligent and caring.
On the other hand, the overcrowded script doesn’t allow these fascinating characters to breathe, with plot threads being sewn up quickly and inadequately. It often feels like one more scene, one more conversation could really tie things up, but the movie instead steamrolls to its conclusion. “In a World … ” also isn’t much to look at, but it’s not uncommon for a debut writer-director to think more about the script than the cinematography.
It would be great to see Lake Bell make more movies; she’s clearly got plenty to say, and she has a facility at working with actors (including directing herself). Next time, maybe she’ll have the confidence to know that she doesn’t have to cram all of her ideas into one basket.