Voice actors might not be the unsung heroes of the movie world but they are partly responsible for why many people go to see one movie or another. As Lake Bell’s chaotic but assured comedy reminds us, during the glory days of Don LaFontaine’s ubiquitous, widely parodied trailer narrations “In a world…,” that rumbling, gargantuan voice was almost as much a cause of excitement as whatever happened to be blowing up on the screen at the time. In the end, Bell’s movie doesn’t really have much to do with the artistry or even the business of the voiceover, but it makes for a good enough hook to hang her various sketches from.
Writer/director Bell plays Carol, an ADHD- and neurosis-addled, motormouthed thirtysomething who’s still living with her famous voiceover actor father Sam (Fred Melamed, a star voiceover guy in his own right) and trying unsuccessfully to follow in his footsteps. At the movie’s start, Sam is happily fulfilling the stereotype of the bitterly insecure, widowed, aging Hollywood pseudo-star, with a new young blonde girlfriend despised by his daughters. He kicks Sam out of the house for what he says is her own good. But that move inadvertently pushes her into a competing role once word gets out that a studio is reviving “The Voice” (the credits sequence provides a handy tutorial on LaFontaine for the unschooled) for a new Hunger Games-like franchise and Carol becomes the dark-horse contender to Gustav (Ken Marino), whom Sam has chosen to champion as his successor.
Like far too many romantic comedies centering on a young woman, In a World… situates its searching protagonist as a complete disaster looking for validation from men like her father and also an unassuming coworker (Demetri Martin, working the awkward angle for all it’s worth and then some) with a crush on her. Unlike most movies of this ilk, Bell ultimately puts more emphasis on Carol finding her way in the professional world and patching up things with her cranky sister Dani (Michaela Watkins), who’s in the middle of an affair that’s destroying her marriage. In the middle of all this inter-familial drama, Bell also tries to weave in an industry-insider narrative about voiceover work while scattering several other subplots, running jokes, and celebrity cameos along the way.
The film is in as much of a rush to move forward as Carol is to stammer out whatever barely-formed thought just occurred to her. This is a good thing, as the less we see of Bell’s highly creaky and illogical plot, the better. It’s never quite articulated why Sam wants so badly to pass the torch to Gustav, beyond the fact that two are similarly unctuous womanizers and so feel a bond. Also, Carol’s late-career successes seems almost completely random, and the subplot about Dani’s extramarital infatuation is clumsily slapped in and never quite resolved. The fact that Bell isn’t able to pull all of these elements together into one unified package doesn’t much matter, though, as the energy of the film and the casually confident humor delivered by her deeply-stocked cast make it all glide by with ease. This is a rare and smart comedy that’s insider without being exclusive and fresh without being precious; hopefully it’s the first of many for Bell.