Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Finding Her Voice: Lake Bell's IN A WORLD...

"The industry does not crave a female sound." - Sam Sotto

Lake Bell, Fred Melamed
With the affordability of digital production, it should be no surprise that a growing number of Hollywood actors, dissatisfied with today's big franchise pictures, are stepping behind the camera to create characters and stories of their own. Joseph Gordon-Levitt wrote, directed, and starred in last year’s sharply amusing Don Jon; Zach Braff recently released his follow-up to Garden State, Wish I Was Here; and James Franco seems to turn out something new (if usually unwatchable) every other month.

The ranks of women initiating their own projects is also growing, even in an industry as male-dominated as Hollywood's. Though mostly working in the indie and low-budget spheres, there are a number of actresses who write (or more often co-write) their own films, such as Brit Marling, Krysten Ritter, and Katie Aselton, with the occasional breakout success of a Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids) or critical acclaim of a Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks).

But with exceptions like Aselton (The Freebie, Black Rock), Jennifer Westfeldt (Friends with Kids) and former actress Lynn Shelton (Your Sister’s Sister, Touchy Feely), very few have made the transition to the director's chair as confidently as Lake Bell, who wrote, directed, and starred in 2013’s laugh-out-loud funny, In a World…, making its Netflix streaming debut.

Melamed, Marino, Marino's pecs
A specialist in offbeat light comedy, Bell spent over a decade acting in TV shows such as Boston Legal and Childrens Hospital, as well as numerous— mostly indie—feature films. Having flexed her directing chops on episodes of Childrens Hospital and a 2010, Sundance-selected short film, she felt ready to tackle In a World, creating what may be the perfect hybrid of indie/big-studio comedy—the kind Hollywood so rarely makes anymore (especially when they cost so little). Consistently smart and funny, the film regularly belies expectations while achieving everything it sets out to, usually with a flourish.

Bell plays Carol Solomon, a rumpled freelance vocal coach who lives with her father, a legendary voiceover actor named Sam Sotto (played by a bearish and hysterically patronizing Fred Melamed). Sam, with his female groupies, license plate that reads ANUNC8, and young trophy girlfriend, has written a successful autobiography and is about to receive a lifetime achievement award. He's a man who knows his talent, even as he's preparing to pass the torch to the next generation of golden-throated thespiansspecifically, his pal Gustav Warner (Ken Marino), a former rich kid who's now the highest-paid voice in the business. Carol, meanwhile, struggles to get by, her biggest client a screechy Eva Longoria who can't find her inner Cockney.

Gustav enchanted
Despite her father's insistence that Hollywood has no place for "the female sound," Carol unintentionally books a voiceover gig that Gustav failed to show up for. More jobs soon follow. Before longand practically by accidentshe's in the running for the voiceover industry's most highly coveted role: narrating the trailer for a ridiculous epic quadrilogy called The Amazon Games. To say that she poses a threat to Gustav and her father is putting it mildly. As those two sultans of sonorousness start to sniff the winds of change, the sense of male privilege and entitlement oozing from them is cut by an acrid tang of desperation. If they weren't so funny and horrible, you'd almost feel bad for them.

Struggling for her father's approval as she fights Hollywood's bias toward male announcers, Carol might easily be viewed as a stand-in for every woman who's ever tried to direct a motion picture (or reach the executive suite). But Bell is too canny to be merely shouting from a soapbox; too funny, too. Carol, klutzy and insecure despite her gifts as a vocal coach, is so particular in her quirks and characterizationshe invents rallying phrases like "Sister code," and follows people around with a tape recorder to steal their accentsit's hard to think of her as some grand symbol of female empowerment.

Demetri Martin and Tig Notaro
But Carol isn't the only character who goes beyond type to achieve that specificity that makes her so charmingly human. Breathing life into Bell's well-constructed screenplay is a comic ensemble whose commitment to the material provides a recurring, off-kilter kick. It's an advantage the director consciously availed herself of by casting performers she had previously worked with. The bench here runs deep, from former Childrens Hospital alums Ken Marino and Rob Corddry, to Demetri Martin, Michaela Watkins, and sly scene-stealer Tig Notaro. Bell's comfort level with her castand the cast with each other—allows a sense of play that contributes to the impression of witnessing genuine human relationships (as opposed to movie relationships).

Bell with Michaela Watkins
Standouts include Corddry, who for a change doesn't play a cartoon, bringing real pathos to his role as Carol's brother-in-law; former SNL member Watkins, who's funny and touching as the straying sister; Demetri Martin as Louis, a bumbling studio engineer who's sweet on Carol while being her biggest ally; and Ken Marino, at his fatuous, egocentric best as Gustav. The film's ace in the hole, however, may be character actor Melamed, who plays Carol's Voice of God dad. He manages to be intimidating, insecure, petty, and conniving like all the best modern screen villains. And yet he's so enchanted by his own eminence (and vocal chords) you can't help laughing at him.

What Bell has accomplished with In a World is not simply a fringe-of-show-business comedy that takes a (slightly cracked) lens to a little-examined corner of Hollywood. It's also that movie rarity: an honest-to-goodness portrait of the rivalry between a father and daughter. And while the film's glue may be its award-winning screenplay, what makes it so fun—and rewatchableare the wonderfully random moments and loopy charm resulting from Bell's light, assured direction, the hard work of her collaborators, and an earworm-ready mix of perfectly selected '70s, '80s, and '90s pop tunes.

If nothing elseand despite the irony of having posed for Maxim, Esquire, and GQBell gets in her digs at that awful vocal scourge infecting the modern American woman: the sexy baby voice (like, you know?). If viewing this film causes those afflicted females to recognize how ridiculous they sound, then whatever pain and expense the director and her team went to in making In a World will have been worth it.

So, please, show this movie to someone you love. The ears you save may be your own.


Dan O. said...

Good review David. It's not an amazing movie, but it's still a pleasant enough time that I was willing to forgive it for some of its short-comings, and just focus on the fact that Bell truly has created a lovely movie here. Not perfect, but still worth an ounce of your time.

David Speranza said...

Thanks, Dan. Certainly it's no Citizen Kane (something I actually wrote but cut at the last minute), but it's damn entertaining and solidly done. It gave me as much pleasure on its second viewing as on the first, and when it ended I could easily see myself watching it again. For a grizzled old movie salt like myself, that's saying a lot. I've watched a slew of comedies (indie and otherwise) that aspired to be on the level of this one--plus I've tried writing a couple myself--and they're invariably painful experiences. This one was all pleasure. Plus nobody was shot, there were no idiotic misunderstandings, and nothing got blown up--so rare in this day and age!

Worth only an ounce? Only if you're weighing gold--or weed. ;-)