In a World . . . is a traditional, by-the-books comedy about the niche movie trailer voiceover industry and overstuffed with niche comedians, but it’s one that attempts to make a universal point in its sucker punch ending. Writer/director/star Lake Bell creates a lived-in world that feels authentic in its portrayal of the insider humor of what movie-trailer narrators call “The Industry”, but also feels totally bogus in the way that all comedies do. The list of inspirational sources she manages to pull from while maintaining this balance is impressive: traces of 70s & 80s ensemble comedies; more modern, flat, bickering anti-humor; and professional competition Spencer-Tracy rom-coms like Adam’s Rib & Woman of the Year run throughout. There’s a confidence & ease to In a World . . . that makes Bell seem like either a natural or a great student of the Hollywood comedy as an art-form who’s been cooking this particular idea for a long while.
The plot centers on voiceover artists scrambling to fill the void left by the death of real-life movie trailer colossus Don LaFontaine, the infamous voice behind ads that begin with the phrase “In a world . . .” As portrayed here, “The Industry” is a cutthroat, tight-knit community overrun by white men who have dominated it since its inception. Lake Bell’s protagonist, Carol, attempts to shake up the old guard by infiltrating their ranks. Every success she achieves in “The Industry” on her own merits is regarded by her competition as her stealing their jobs and she quickly earns the moniker “The Thief”. Bullheaded men treat the idea of a woman in the business like an unwanted intrusion and the worst offender of all is Carol’s father, a legend in “The Industry”. He actively tries to limit her professional opportunities, championing a male voiceover artist as his protege instead of his own daughter and spouting unchallenged, sexist drivel that feels like a hangover of the boys-club era that’s slipping through his fingers. Early in the film he encourages Carol to abandon her dreams of becoming the next Don LaFontaine, telling her “The Industry does not crave a female sound. I’m not being sexist; it’s just true.” It’s true to him, at least. Because he’s sexist.
As mentioned above, In a World . . . gets very didactic & cruel in its last ten minutes, but the mood shift doesn’t feel unearned. There’s a consistent mean streak running throughout that telegraphs the bitter, cynical worldview of the climactic scene long before it arrives. It’s an ending that most likely won’t sit right with some viewers not only because it’s cruel, but because it muddles both the general vibe of the film as well as its central message. I believe the muddling was intentional, as it reflects the way a woman’s professional accomplishments & missteps can often feel muddled by the politics that surround them. Either way, it’s a conclusion that’s ultimately up for debate, since it refuses to be fully explained, instead opting to leave you on an oddly sour note.
There’s plenty of other great elements to praise, even if the ending doesn’t work for you. The film boasts the same reverence for sound employed in the likes of Berberian Sound Studio & Electrick Children, except more intensely focused on the sound of the human voice. There are great one-off gags involving “The Industry”, especially in fake movie titles like Welcome to the Jungle Gym. Perhaps the biggest strength of all is the stacked comedic cast mentioned earlier. Ken Marino plays a perfect 80s cad here and is backed up by names like Rob Corddry, Tig Notaro, Nick Offerman, Demitiri Martin and Geena F’n Davis. Lake Bell herself carries the central role as well as she carries the daunting tasks of a first-time writer/director. As a mission statement, Bell’s first feature suggests that she has a lot of great films in her just waiting to get made and, judging by In a World . . .’s bitter ending, they’re movies that aren’t going to play nice.
In a World . . . is currently streaming on Netflix.