In a World… is funny, random, charmingly sweet, a little romantic and an impressive feature length writing, producing and directing debut by star Lake Bell. It’s also strongly feminist, but in a way that feels realistic while still sending a clear message. The film, which was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival, tells the story of Carol Solomon, a struggling vocal coach whose father, Sam Soto, is one of the famous kings of the movie trailer voice-over industry. You would think with a father who is a legend in the industry that Carol would have an easy way into the business, too, but her father not only is uninterested in giving her handouts (which his therapist tells him is just enabling Carol) but also doesn’t think women have any place in the industry. It’s a boy’s only club, with Sam spending his time and energy promoting sleazeball Guztav Warner as the next generation of voice over powerhouse instead of his own daughter. Sam makes his opinions clear to Carol before kicking her out of the house so that Sam’s groupie girlfriend can move in instead (nevermind the fact that she’s a year younger than his daughter.)
So Carol moves in with her sister and brother-in-law, spending her days helping celebrities work on their speech (at the moment, trying to teach Eva Longoria to sound Cockney) and using her free time to covertly record people whose accents she finds interesting. However, while working with Longoria in the studio one day, Carol is approached by Louis, a cute but goofy sound engineer in the studio, to record a temporary voice-over track that Gustav Warner failed to show up for. The movie producers like her sound, and suddenly Carol is getting real trailer voice-over work, even if it is all confined to the specific genre of “children’s romantic comedy”. Before she knows it, she’s up for consideration for an epic quadrilogy of films, based on a popular book series about a group of Amazon warriors. For this trailer, the producers have decided to bring back the classic “In a world…” trope, made famous by voice-over legend Don LaFontaine who used it at the beginning of many trailers. But her competition will be none other than Gustav Warner and her own father.
The setup for In a World… is a clever metaphor for the systemic sexism of certain industries, but it’s also a setup that works well for Bell’s comedic style. The very premise is funny, with the voice-over performers treated like celebrities in a world where real celebrities are the ones whose faces fill the trailers, not those who simply read in a booth. While there are lots of laughs in In a World…, I almost hesitate to call it a comedy, even if that’s the most obvious category into which it falls. Bell has a distinct voice as a writer, which is actually a bit difficult to describe, though the bulk of her comedy is unexpectedly random. Much of the film’s humor comes from the characters she has created, who have distinct personalities despite not always having a lot of screen time. While sometimes silly, the characters and their interactions all feel believable, which is a tough line to walk in these days of overblow and overacted comedies.
It helps that the film is filled with talented actors, many of whom will be familiar to audiences. Bell’s Carol is charmingly quirky, goofy yet driven, and she and her sister both carry a lot of baggage from their relationships with their father. Bell also has a gift when it comes to accents, and I wish she’d gotten more opportunities to use them in the film. Fred Melamed is charming while still being a mostly-horrible father to Carol and her sister, and he has the pipes to make a convincing voice-over legend. Ken Marino makes a convincing douchebag as Gustav Warner, whose ego is constantly being stroked by Soto, and who has one of the most off-the-wall moments in the movie. Demetri Martin is a lot of fun as studio engineer Louis, who has a crush on Carol but also wants to see her succeed because of what it will mean to the industry. The rest of the cast is rounded off with familiar faces, including Michaela Watkins and Rob Corddry as Carol’s sister and brother-in-law and Nick Offerman and Tig Notaro as the other studio employees. There are also a handful of big name cameos which I’ll leave for you to discover.
If I had one complaint, however, it would be that In a World… feels too short. I know most people complain about movies being too long, and if you asked people they’d probably say that this film’s 93 minute running time is the ideal for movies, but it really works against the movie. Things in the film sometimes happen rather suddenly and end rather suddenly, without a lot of buildup. This works in some instances but not in others, and is particularly noticeable in the climax of the film. The movie is rolling along and then without warning everything is wrapping up pretty quickly. The short running time is especially glaring when it comes to the subplot of Carol’s sister and brother-in-law’s marital problems, which in hindsight feels like it got too much screentime when compared with the rest of the film. Everything in the movie works, and works well, but I would have liked Bell to give things another 20 minutes or so to let them breathe a bit. But if my one complaint is that I would have liked more, that’s generally a good problem to have.
The film’s feminist message is difficult to discuss without giving anything away (read more in the brief, spoilery analysis below), but it makes several good points about why some men can’t stand the thought of a woman succeeding and why even the smallest steps forward are important. It also has statements on the way women treat other women, and how they’re all connected in the struggle for equality. As for In a World…, the most telling thing may just be how hard it is to even find it in a theater near you. It was showing in one small, artsy theater in town, when it’s as good or better than most of the big films out right now. Beyond just the fact that the film is immensely enjoyable, I want to see it succeed because it could show other women that they can succeed in making their films their way, doing more than simply acting in films about women but made by men or making films about men for men (Zero Dark Thirty). In a world where men still dominate the entertainment industry, one small film can teach us all a lot about the state of things, and how far we still have to go.
In a World… makes some interesting points that I want to discuss further, but be warned that to do so means that there are spoilers below. Some of the points are pretty obvious, especially to people like me who work in an historically male-dominated industry. The fact is that there are still a lot of jobs which people believe not only are women unable to do, but that they shouldn’t be allowed to do either. This is, of course, in addition to the fact that women are paid less than men for doing the same jobs in the US. In the film, it’s always meant to be a bit silly that Carol’s father, Sam, is so opposed to women doing voice-over work, because there’s no clear reason as to why it makes any difference if the voice-over male or female. The obvious conclusion is that voice-overs have historically been male, and Sam and Gustav are uninterested in relinquishing their position to allow women in. There’s no other conceivable reason why Sam would object to his daughter having a place in the industry. Sam encourages Carol in her vocal coaching, as a more suitable voice-related industry for a woman.
Sam and Gustav completely objectify the women in their lives, though there’s little new to that story. One night during a party at his house, Gustav and Carol hook up, with Carol spending the night before leaving the next morning while he’s still asleep. Presumably she’s attracted to him because he’s handsome and smooth, and she also really likes the secret room she discovers in his house which is full of artifacts from his world travels, but we never hear from her why she does it. The movie doesn’t dwell on it, and other than a slightly embarrassing encounter with Gustav’s maid on the way out of the house, Carol is never made to feel guilty over the one-night stand. But after the party, Gustav brags to Sam about the girl he hooked up with (not realizing she is Sam’s daughter) and then when they find out that she is the one competing with Gustav over the “in a world…” gig, they relish the thought of beating her and putting her in her place. It’s all pretty disgusting, especially considering how easy it is to imagine a conversation like that taking place.
Contrast that with Louis, whose defining characteristic is dorkiness and who is a long way from Gustav’s traditional good looks and his expensive mansion. Louis likes Carol (and later finds out the feeling is mutual), but beyond his crush he also wants to see her succeed. He gives a short speech to Carol, that he spent some time rehearsing, about spending most of his time around women and understanding how much it could mean if Carol gets the coveted gig. I wanted to give a little cheer during the scene, because it successfully articulated why a man would care about the advancement of women in this world. As a male feminist, I can definitely relate to Louis.
Sam, meanwhile, is dating a 30 year old blonde groupie, Jamie, who we initially think is only attracted to him because of his fame (he recently published an autobiography). Carol’s disgusted by her, as she represents everything that she thinks is degrading to women. She also talks in a “sexy baby” voice, based on a TV show in the film that seems based on something like the “Real Housewives” series. The voice resembles what you might imagine Paris Hilton sounding like, high and breathy and ditzy. (Carol also has a couple of encounters on the street with a woman who uses the same “sexy baby” voice.) Sam likes her because she basically worships the ground he walks on all while being non-threatening.
Initially, Sam wasn’t going to try for the “in a world” gig, instead putting all of his clout behind Gustav in the hopes of crushing the anonymous woman trying to find her way into the industry. (Sam was initially disappointed that he wasn’t approached for the gig.) When he discovers that the mystery woman is Carol, he throws himself into the race, refusing to let her get a job that wasn’t offered to him. The trailer voice-over results are revealed at the Golden Trailer Awards (where Sam is getting the lifetime achievement award), Carol is revealed as a winner. Sam gets up in the middle of the trailer and storms off, followed by Jamie. He eventually ends up in a closet and bursts into childish tears. It’s completely pathetic that instead of congratulating his daughter or at least sitting quietly he goes off to cry like a kid picked last for a team on the playground (I was picked last a lot, so I can at least relate to that). He has no instinct to be happy for the success of his daughter at all. His self-worth is so tied up in his sense of “masculinity” (whatever that means) that he’s unable to cope with the thought of being defeated by a woman.
But what’s really surprising is that Jamie comes in to find him crying and instead of comforting him like you would expect given the way her character has been presented, she instead gives him a stern lecture about how horrible he has been to his two daughters. She tells him to go out there and be happy for Carol, and to start treating them better, or she will leave him. It’s an unexpected showing of solidarity between two women that otherwise didn’t want anything to do with each other, and the message is pretty clear. In a world where women are constantly judged as inferior by men and by the ways pop culture portrays them, there’s not any room for women to put each other down in order to get ahead. Sam accepts his lifetime achievement award with grace and dedicates it to his daughters, saying how proud he is of them, and we get the impression that he’s now on a better path than he was before.
Carol, meanwhile, runs into The Amazon Games film producer (played by Geena Davis) in the bathroom, and proceeds to thank her for getting the “in a world” gig for the trailer. The producer compliments Carol on her tone and her abilities, but then says that she wasn’t picked because she was the best of the auditions. The producer says that the film series, which she dismisses as bad for the image of women (the title of the film references The Hunger Games, obviously, but the footage from the trailer is more like Mad Max, with Cameron Diaz as a scantily clad Mel Gibson), will make a billion dollars and that Carol’s voice will be tied to that success. Her point is that she didn’t pick Carol because she was the best, but because she’s a woman, and she knows how much this could mean for women out there. She knows how inspiring it could be to hear a traditionally male role played by a female on the largest stage of the industry. (Geena Davis plays the part with the air of a woman who has had to fight tooth and nail to carve a place in a “man’s business” in order to be a successful film producer.)
Carol ends up teaching classes for women afflicted with the “sexy baby” voice. That woman she kept bumping into on the street was actually a corporate attorney who used that voice because it helped her with relationships, but found that no one wanted to hire a woman who sounded like a cartoon character to fight for their company. Carol’s natural talents combined with her newfound fame from the The Amazon Games trailer put her in a position to help women redefine themselves in a way that isn’t designed simply to appeal to men.
In a World… touches on a lot of issues involving women’s position in society and the way they are presented. It offers some critiques of the ways in which women “lower” themselves for temporary gain and how that damages the overall cause. It gives some examples of the ways in which women (and men) can make a difference in the way women are perceived, both by individuals and by society as a whole. It shows that the fight for women is not simply for women alone, and that there needs to be a general sense of unity in order to make progress.
When Lake Bell was on The Daily Show, she told John Oliver a story about the premiere of her film. Before the movie started, she went to the projection room to check that everything was set up properly, making sure the sound levels were correct and that the aspect ratio settings were right and other things that affect the quality of the film experience. While she was there, someone said to her, “Look at you. You look just like a real director.” It’s easy to laugh at In a World…, because it can be hilarious, but the reality is that there are still people out there who view women as second-rate citizens, incapable of doing certain jobs, who think it is cute to see women try. This is the sort of attitude we should be fighting every day. It’s a fight that has to take on both individuals and the system, and we still have a long way to go.
This film should be given as much of a chance to find an audience as any other, but instead we’re forced to seek it out in hard to find places. But until the day that art made by women is given as much of a chance as art made by men, I’ll do my best to encourage everyone I can to go find it.