In a World... is so gosh-almighty damn adorable that it's way too easy to lose track of how weirdly dense its script is. Herein, we have a movie that wants to be an affectionately wacky inside-baseball comedy about one of the most marginal acting fields in the film industry; that wants to be a loud and proud feminist statement about using talent, passion, and cunning to chip away at male privilege so vigorously entrenched that it's impervious to even the smallest measure of consciousness-raising; that wants to be an emotionally unflinching dramedy about professional jealousy between parents and children; and that wants to be an indie romantic comedy that combines the quirky excess of a mid-'00s film with emphatically naturalistic performances by an immoderately well-stocked cast. It manages to succeed at each and every one of these goals in the span of a relentlessly laconic 93 minutes, which shouldn't have been possible anyway, let alone in the first feature-length project made by its writer-director.
So let's start, then, by praising with great praise the name of Lake Bell, who's also the star and producer; if this is one of those "talented actress writes herself a leading role because nobody else was going to fucking do it" stories, it has the benefit of an especially talented actress who surely did deserve a terrific, worshipful leading part, something I've felt ever since she elevated the tacky, typical romantic comedies Over Her Dead Body and What Happens in Vegas with her terrific supporting turns, a long half-decade ago. If In a World... had nothing to offer but an hour and a half of Bell knocking it out of the park, one scene after another, playing a privately self-amused and constantly self-doubting artistic striver and self-appointed smartest person in the room; I insist, if this was the sole merit of In a World..., that would be enough to make me glad that In a World... exists.
But that is not the film's sole merit, for Bell turns out to be a hell of a comedy director - not possessed of any particular intuition for elegant visuals (not that contemporary comedies bother about having meaningful aesthetics most of the time), but well aware of how to run her fellow actors through their paces, keeping the film gliding forward at a steady, smooth clip. She also keeps the film situated in a most unusual tonal register, which I hope the phrase "relentlessly laconic" already pointed out: it's cool and remote for the most part, virtually never punching up the jokes or encouraging its audience to laugh. Yet it's simultaneously so absurd and goofy in concept, setting, and plot, stopping off for so many random, loopy asides that it feels, at times, like every line and reaction shot is a new gag, however underemphasised. Clearly, this kind of low simmering wry comedy isn't to everyone's tastes, even more than most comedy; all I can say is that I, for one, haven't found anything so playful, so flat-out enjoyably funny, all year.
The movie, anyway, involves the world of voiceover acting, with Bell playing Carol Solomon, a voice coach for actors and others, and the daughter of Sam Soto (Fred Melamed), widely regarded as the greatest trailer narrator in the business following the death of legendary Don LaFontaine (who puts in a few cameos via stock footage, a slightly ghoulish, off-putting decision). But Sam is getting on in years, and grooming Gustav Warner (Ken Marino) as the heir to the throne, totally ignoring Carol's hints and outright statements that she'd like to maybe break into the traditionally male-dominated trailer-voicing business. That's the simplest way to describe a collage of plots that also involves Carol's sister (Michaela Watkins) flirting with a sexy client and misleading her decent, busy editor husband (Rob Corddry), and the population of a recording studio where Carol does most of her work, and where random chance puts her unexpectedly in the running to narrate the year's biggest trailer, advertising the first movie in a wildly-hyped series of book adaptations.
If the film, at a certain remove, exists to show off what Lake Bell can do - voices! self-effacement! gloriously expressive reaction shots! - it's also pretty generous to everybody else in the cast, giving Melamed in particular a chance to shine like all the stars in the heavens, playing a beautifully smug man of limited by undeniable talents. But everybody, even the smallest parts, have some wonderful lines and cute or funny or sweet beats to play, and Bell has managed to assemble a pretty swell population of cameos, best of whom is Eva Longoria (Bell's Over Her Dead Body co-star) in a uniquely selfless portrayal of herself as an incompetent idiot and bad actress.
Beyond the human element, Bell's exploration of a niche community within the already hermetic worlds of Los Angeles and Hollywood is at once loving and hilarious, admiring the foibles of her characters without feeling obliged to mock them or their work. The dominant mood of the film is one of pleasantness and affection, in fact, even when Bell is at her most direct in attacking the "boys only" mentality of the voiceover industry; without forgiving the entrenched sexism of the world she depicts, she also treats it more as ignorance to be pitied than villainy to be stomped on. Anyway, Carol herself is purposefully a being of flaws and sometimes poor judgments, not a figurehead, which makes the movie more entertaining and more intelligent at the same time.
The movie's only real problem - discounting its characteristic and potentially alienating sense of humor - is its dully functional aesthetic: the filmmakers (including cinematographer Seamus Tierney and editor Tom McArdle) are talented enough to know when a close-up is funnier than a wide shot, and vice-versa, and when to let moments play out in long takes as opposed to when to use rhythmic cutting to build humor, but the film as a whole has a rather uninspired and generically flat appearance, and for a film so emphatically about sound, there's nothing clever or evocative in the audio mix. It gets the job done, and stays out of the way of the script. That's important, but there have been comedies down through the years, believe it or not, that are great cinema; In a World... is merely adequate, well-crafted cinema. But it's also fantastic comedy and hugely appealing character building, and the whole thing ends up being one of the most charming and delightful movies in a very long time.