Actress Lake Bell’s directorial debut In a World had done something to me that no film has managed to do for the past couple of years. Immediately after watching it I had a goofy smile plastered on my face, and for the rest of the day any time I thought about the movie the smile would return in full. It’s been a couple of weeks since I watched it, and you can’t see it, but I’m smiling right now. It’s a film of such good will and wit that it not only establishes Bell as a talent to keep one’s eye on, but it has the power to rejuvenate modern comedies as we currently see them.
Carol (Bell) is a bored 31-year-old vocal coach that dreams of doing voiceover work for movie trailers and commercials. Her father (Fred Melamed) has held Carol’s dream job for decades, but instead of encouraging his daughter he constantly puts her down and instead backs a good looking man named Gustav (Ken Marino) to pass the torch to. One day when Gustav loses his voice, Louis (Demetri Martin), a sound engineer with a crush, gets her to do a trailer voiceover. It goes over so well that she ends up putting the jobs of both her dad and Gustav – who she ends up hooking up with – in danger with a high profile gig in the balance.
Aside from the behind the camera work that she excels at, Bell’s performance itself is a thing of beauty. It shows quite the large skill set for someone who has sadly been under utilized outside of television. Her take on Carol calls to mind something almost Chaplin-esque. She’s a smart, sly, confident, and wholly loveable underachiever on the verge of giving up. It’s such a classical character with such a simple formula, it’s astonishing to think that modern comedies seem so afraid to use the template for any character like this, either male or female. Everyone notices Carol, but she doesn’t necessarily want to be noticed by them until she opens up to them. She’s confident in her abilities, but bitter that they’re never put to better use than teaching pampered actresses how to loop their lines in phony accents without sounding idiotic. Bell looks and acts both like a consummate professional and a novice at the same time, which is a certain kind of confidence that’s almost impossible to convey realistically without lapsing into caricature (it’s a trait that carries over to the male leads, as well). She’s charming, quick witted, friendly, and Bell’s almost effortless charisma is put to excellent use.
It could probably be easiest to classify In a World as one of the best romantic comedies in years, since that seems to be the most prominent element to the story once it gets going. In truth, it’s far richer than that, but it’s a great starting point when talking about the film and why it works as a whole. It’s not all about the romance, but it reinforces the fact that the most effective rom-coms don’t actively focus on the wooing and hooking up to make its final act pay off. They focus on situations and the characters instead of grand gestures, and with Bell’s radiant performance at the centre of her own material holding it all together it becomes the movie people have really been waiting for and deserving for quite some time.
The relationships that Bell constructs with both Marino and Martin are something special because neither character is typical fodder for this kind of story. Gustav should be a villain, and while he does some slightly underhanded things, he’s nowhere near as nefarious of a cad as Carol’s father is. Marino actually plays Gustav as more misguided and lost than outwardly douchy, which is a nice change of pace for an actor who often gets cast as a prototypical bro that he can spice up with his special kind of delivery.
As for Martin, who knew that this usually avant garde stand-up would make for a credible romantic leading man? Bringing his almost trademarked awkwardness to the sweet and bumbling Louis, Martin gets a chance to play a genuinely nice guy with some incredibly childish and passive aggressive tendencies. When he perceives he’s being snubbed by Carol en route to a posh Hollywood party, he brings along the office ditz that he barely tolerates at work to simply put on a brave face and not seem quite so wounded.
There are some moments where In a World seems like it might be biting off just slightly more than it can chew, but none of it diminishes the entertainment value of the film as a whole. Those moments come via a sub-plot involving Carol’s sister, Dani (Michaela Watkins), and her husband, Moe (Rob Corddry). It’s the strangest fit for the movie to include a marriage on the rocks thanks to Dani’s wandering eye, but the actors playing the roles are consistently funny and the parts are well written despite the pace slowing. It speaks to Bell’s abilities as a director to make it all work, but there could have been some trimming here.
Then again, this subplot might best serve the film’s second main focus, which is that of how a family unit copes with constant in-fighting, bickering, and jealousy. Melamed’s paternal figure is appropriately oily and sleazy (and in several scenes sweaty and hairy), but his daughters are definitely products of his parenting. Both are strong and share his stubbornness, but they have both seemingly given up trying to get him to listen to reason. He’s become so successful, he’s perfectly content to cut both of them out of his lives completely in a bid to live with his new girlfriend that’s easily 30 years his junior. It’s not hard to see where Dani and Carol get their greatest faults from since their father is such a larger than life personality that it’s impossible for anyone around him to not be conditioned by his very presence.
There’s also the matter of the surrogate family that supports and surround her, of which Moe is refreshingly one of Carol’s strongest supporters even when things go south with her sister. Obviously Louis pulls for her, but the supporting cast of familiar faces at the recording studio where she works – including great character bits from Nick Offerman (who looks really strange without facial hair and sporting a jaunty hat that Denzel Washington would be jealous of) and the always underrated Tig Notaro – round out an almost unfairly strong cast.
Finally, and perhaps most groundbreaking, is how Bell is able to create a film that’s capable of riding a wave of comedies with female leads without ever once giving into the shortcomings that have been cropping up in them. In a World is hilarious on its own terms, and it’s a bit unfair and slightly apt to compare Carol to a Judd Apatow styled man-child, or to the women in Bridesmaids. Assuredly, Carol is directionless, somewhat beaten down by life, and not in any real hurry to take on any responsibility not tied to her own specific dreams, but she’s quite likeable and never stuck in buffonish or grotesque situations. She curses like a sailor and isn’t above a one night stand, but she’s definitely human, and Bell’s script and direction keeps things as realistic as possible instead of resorting to cheap laughs or heavy handed genre pandering (like Bridesmaids director Paul Feig’s other big success, The Heat, which is fine, but is incredibly basic).
The fact that the film is about a woman trying to make it in a male dominated profession already makes it a bit of a feminist victory in terms of crafting a believable yarn with a strong role model anyone regardless of age or sex can get behind. Bell never chooses to drive that point home too strongly, though. She handles it as balanced as she does the romance and familial elements. This isn’t a slacker story, a feminist screed, or a Hollywood satire. It’s hilarious because of how human it is. Even the film’s rougher edges belie a great deal of warmth and generosity that few comedies directed by veterans are even capable of. To make all of her story elements work, she never places one above the other, and all in all it’s a far vibrant and spunky film than one might expect on a passing glance. There’s actually quite a bit to chew on and think about outside of the cleverness and sweetness. It might be the end of the summer, but In a World is the comedy you’ve been waiting all season for.