I’d never understood before Lake Bell’s appeal as a thespian. It’s not that I found her performances lacking per se, but every role I’d seen from the woman, whether in a romantic comedy or primetime soap, seemed an awkward fit, so I’d assumed her range limited. As the writer, director, and star of In a World, though, she blows me away, and it now occurs to me that the problem might lie in Hollywood always sending out casting calls for the same two-dimensional female stereotypes, leaving a wide assortment of thoughtful, dynamic actresses with little to do.
Bell’s character would certainly agree. The daughter of a famous (and famously conceited) voiceover artist, Carol has been told all her life that movie adverts demand a forceful, coercive energy that only a male announcer can offer. Her old man, Sam (Fred Melamed), even tells her to “stick to accents” while building up a serial womanizer from his boys club as his successor. “Bang the little job thief and mess with her emotions,” he tells his protégé, Gustav (Ken Marino), upon learning that a woman might narrate the first “in a world” trailer since Don LaFontaine’s passing. Never once does it occur to him their competitor could be his own child.
Yes, it’s a feminist metaphor, the kind you might write with a capital F, albeit a lower case M. Consider how In a World subverts the misogyny inherent to every rom-com idiot plot with a single, self-deprecating cheer: “Guess who’s a big fat slut!” By allowing Carol to immediately recognise her tryst with Gustav as a meaningless one-night stand, Bell not only torpedoes Sam’s adolescent scheme, thus forcing the story into more interesting territory, but also achieves in under five minutes what took Maggie Carey an hour and a half in The To Do List (2013): give women their power back in the sexual dynamic.
I also appreciate the way our heroine’s true love interest (Demetri Martin) bypasses the disturbing clichés usually associated with the invisible best friend, conveying genuine frustration at the news of her hookup with Gustav without acting like he’s got a claim on her vagina by virtue of lusting after it. Rather than throw a jealous fit, Louis simply asks Carol out to a night of karaoke and Dance Dance Revolution, resulting in perhaps the only cinematic first date I’ve ever found both fun and plausible. Therein lies the charm of In a World, which, despite its quirky premise, features smart, believable human beings doing smart, believable things.
Mind you, this particularity does limit some of the drama, seeing as our protagonists keep heading off any potential challenge or misunderstanding by way of straightforward, mature discussion. To address the issue, Bell throws in a seemingly unrelated subplot showcasing Michaela Watkins and Rob Corddry as Carol’s older sister and overly domesticated brother-in-law. Longing for the sort of macho passion Hollywood typically presents as true love, Dani begins to entertain an affair with a client (Jason O’Mara), leading to a series of heartbreaking and then heartwarming confrontations with Moe that provide In a World with the emotional stakes it desperately needs.
Again, the characters feel real to me and avoid the usual rom-com pitfalls. When Moe begins to suspect his wife of having cheated on him, it’s because, well, she did. By the same token, we understand how Dani might have come to take her untypically modern husband for granted and immediately regret it. You see, In a World doesn’t just lash out at examples of male chauvinism and call it a day. It exposes the different facets of a dysfunctional gender dynamic, pointing out the fundamental hypocrisy in demanding that men treat women as equals all the while devaluing those who do.
One of the common mistakes people make in regard to feminism is to view the cause as a battle of the sexes when it should be blindingly obvious that both men and women lose out in a society that denigrates half its population. As the title indicates, In a World proves more inclusive in its thesis. Through lighthearted, deeply human comedy (I dare you not to laugh at the sight of Carol stalking visible minorities to capture their accents), the film promotes the notion that true equality requires change in every aspect of our culture, from movie advertisers considering affirmative action for female narrators to grown career women relinquishing their “sexy baby” voice to Hollywood coming up with better roles for quirky, thoughtful artists like Lake Bell.