In In a World…, Carol (Lake Bell) hears from a female film producer that she’s hired her not because she’s the best person for the job, but because she’s using her to send a feminist message. I am happy to report that In a World…, the movie Bell herself has made, doesn’t indulge in such overstatement.
Rather, the film reveals its point in Carol’s experience. A slightly dorky 30something, she is most at home scrutinizing the timbre of the various accents she’s acquired for her “vocal archive” and dreams of doing the voiceovers for movie trailers. (The film takes its title, of course, from those iconic opening words of many a trailer.) However, when the movie begins, Carol is barely making ends meet by doing the occasional Sunny D commercial and coaching actors who can’t quite master the accents required by various roles (Eva Longoria appears briefly, trying to spit out a ridiculous line in South London dialect).
Carol’s own mastery is based in her own background, specifically, her father, Sam, a doughy, self-important basso profundo played by real-life voice actor Fred Melamed. A legend in the voiceover industry, he’s up for a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Trailers. Unfortunately, Sam’s stature doesn’t help Carol, and neither does he encourage her in the field. To the contrary, just before he kicks her out of the cluttered family bungalow, to make room for his young girlfriend (Alexandra Holden), Sam matter-of-factly reminds Carol that she should keep working on her funny accents because, well, the ideal movie trailer voice is always male. As if to underline his point, Sam does a lot of male-bonding in the steam room with the industry’s other popular voiceover actor, a smarmy golden boy named Gustav Warner (Ken Marino), whom many insiders expect to inherit Sam’s mantle.
In a World…‘s look at this industry within an industry focuses not on TMZ headliners, but instead on a population of paunchy, aging males and recording engineers. (Demetri Martin, clad in a hoody and track pants, plays the sweetly self-effacing head of the sound-recording studio where Carol freelances and he nurses his crush on her.) Establishing shots show us the smoggy skies and grey buildings that designate Hollywood’s working class, people who live in cramped apartments and discuss movies only in terms of their trailers, the prime real estate for voiceover stars.
Within this idiosyncratic locale, the plot takes off when Carol, serendipitously filling in for Gustav, nails a trailer voiceover and is subsequently tapped to voice the trailers for an epic quadrilogy that’s made out to be something on the level of The Hunger Games crossed with Lord of the Rings, featuring Amazons. Her father, apparently unable to stand the idea of being outdone by “a freshman vocal” like Carol, demands an audition of his own, and the film takes a momentary Rocky-like turn as we’re treated to a training montage of Carol, Sam, and Gustav too, all competing to be the voice of the quadrilogy’s trailers.
Yet despite a story that pivots on a woman breaking into a male-dominated industry (even taking on her father to do so), In a World… neither preaches to us nor mocks its heroine. Rather, it remains a mellow, endearing comedy that happens to center on a female protagonist who isn’t trying to get the guy, have a baby or plan a wedding. Some lines zing and others fall flat, and some storylines are resolved a bit too seamlessly, but the movie makes its points by being funny.
This humor is especially effective because it’s more sympathetic than merciless. Even the most ridiculous characters have more than one dimension: the relationship between the fleshy Sam and his girlfriend (whom Carol derides for having “an unironic Midwestern accent” and “smelling like Lifesavers”) is not without its sweet moments. As well, Carol’s relationship with her older sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) doesn’t draw on overtly formulaic contrasts between them; instead, the gently amusing dynamic between the sisters complicates Carol’s history without making either sibling a caricature.
This relationship helps to make Carol as sympathetic as she is funny. If her fashion sense seems stalled in the grunge era and if she stealthily tape-records people’s accents no matter where she happens to be, she’s also consistently endearing. This even during a so-so subplot involving Dani and her husband Moe (Rob Corddry), which both exposes and resolves Carol’s tape-recording habit. Ultimately, In a World… is not invested in transforming Carol or her transformation of others around her. Instead, it tracks her professional course in an industry she loves. while leaving her unkempt raspberry DIY highlights and faded flannel dresses just as they are. There may be a feminist message in that, but it’s also pretty good comedy.