Grown-up relationship comedies – be they romantic, familial or platonic in nature – have become so fundamentally debased by formulaic storytelling, dreary characterisation, insulting gender stereotypes and witless writing that whenever a movie comes along that operates without indulging in any of those things it almost seems like a revolutionary piece of film-making.
IN A WORLD… (15)
Directed by: Lake Bell
Starring: Lake Bell, Michaela Watkins, Demetri Martin, Ken Marino, Rob Corddry, Fred Melamed
* * * *
In a World… is a movie like that. Written, directed by and starring Lake Bell – breaking through after a series of supporting roles in the kind of mainstream comedies this film effortlessly subverts – it’s a film that’s sweet and smart and funny about so many things in so many quietly surprising ways it feels like it’s breaking the mould, even though it’s really just reshaping what can be accomplished within the mould of an accessible film with relatable characters.
Set in the male-dominated world of voiceover artistry, it finds Bell starring as Carol Solomon, an underachieving 31-year-old dialect coach still living at home with her semi-famous father, Sam (Fred Melamed). He’s a legendary voice actor whose rich baritone has adorned hundreds of movie trailers and commercials with the portentous promise of great drama for anyone who chooses to buy into what he’s helping to sell.
Sam’s an egomaniac and an old-school chauvinist, the sort of person who pays lip-service to the value of his daughter’s talent, but is vehemently opposed – for complex reasons that are revealed as the film progresses – to the idea of women breaking into his field of expertise. Naturally, this attitude doesn’t sit well with Carol, whose linguistic expertise is confined to helping the likes of Eva Longoria (good naturedly playing herself) perfect cockney accents for terrible movies instead of putting her own voice to work on screen.
Using this Hollywood subculture as a stand-in for the film industry as a whole, Bell takes amusing potshots at the rampant sexism that continues to exist within Hollywood via a plot that sees Carol suddenly in contention not only to provide the voiceover for an epic new Hunger Games-style female fantasy “quadrilogy,” but also to resurrect the titular “In a world” trailer phrase – retired, so the film has it, out of respect for the late, great, real life “Trailer Guy,” Don La Fontaine.
This unwittingly puts her in direct competition with her father’s protégé, a sleazy narcissist by the name of Gustav Werner (Ken Marino), with whom she also mistakenly ends up having a drunken (and amusingly weird) sexual encounter.
If all of this sounds terribly insular, Bell ensures it never becomes an inside joke. Broadening the story out with a series of delicately constructed subplots, she’s as interested in mining comedy from the way people interact with each other in their everyday lives as she is in exposing the gender imbalance in the entertainment industry.
As part of her character’s belated coming-of-age, for instance, Carol is forced to move out of her father’s house to make way for a new girlfriend, who, she’s aghast to realise, is actually younger than her. With nowhere else to go, she temporarily moves in with her older sister and her husband, whereupon she promptly, albeit inadvertently, helps brings about a marital crisis – something that adds a beautifully executed layer of dramatic tension to the film (her sister and her brother-in-law are brilliantly played by Michaela Watkins and Rob Corddry).
There’s also a nascent romance with a shy sound engineer (played by Demetri Martin) that’s so funny and sweetly handled it should be required viewing for anyone attempting to make a romantic comedy from this day forth.
What’s so refreshing about this is that Bell doesn’t load the dice. Though we’re primed to like Carol because she’s the protagonist and we’re seeing the world from her point of view, she delivers a vanity free performance and all the characters – even those that seem reprehensible and comically vile, such as her father and Gustav – have interior lives that make them seem like believable people, as capable of moments of great tenderness as they are of great stupidity.
Even characters that seem primed for ridicule – such as her father’s girlfriend (Alexandra Holden) – are supplied with credible moments of redemption that ultimately add to the richness of the world Bell has created. It’s an approach more frequently found in great American TV shows like 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation (fans should watch for a clean-shaven Nick Offerman), but rarely in movies, which too often seem geared towards chasing a specific demographic instead of trusting quality writing, acting and characterisation to draw people in.
With her debut film, however, Bell has demonstrated she has plenty to say and is confident enough in how she wants to say it to make it mean something. In A World… isn’t a polemic, but it is a statement – a wickedly funny, leading-by-example plea for all film-makers to start upping their game.
Directed by: Ron Howard
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Christian McKay
A one-time project for Paul Greengrass, this Formula 1 drama outlining the great rivalry that existed between James Hunt and Niki Lauda arrives on screen in the safe, capable hands of Ron Howard – and that’s one of its biggest problems. Howard can be a great craftsman, but he’s also the cinematic equivalent of a Sunday driver and therefore exactly the type of film-maker you don’t want to make a movie about the decadent, dangerous world of motor racing. Thus, while he brings a certain amount of visual elegance to the 1970s race sequences, he fails to convey successfully the essence of a sport that depends on its participants finding the sweet spot between precision-
engineered chaos and catastrophe. Reteaming with Howard for the first time since Frost/Nixon, scriptwriter Peter Morgan seems to have settled into a groove of dramatising famous yin-yang confrontations – albeit these days with all the psychological nuance of a sledgehammer. Here he reduces Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) to a series of print-the-legend, live-every-day-like-it’s-your-last
clichés and Lauda (Daniel Brühl) to an equally shallow conception of the Austrian champ as a fastidious, methodical obsessive who favours exactitude over excitement. The end result plays like a Fast & Furious film for BAFTA voters.
Sir Billi (U)
Directed by: Sascha Hartman
Voices: Sean Connery, Alan Cumming, Ford Kiernan
A fairly cringe-worthy send-off for Sir Sean Connery, the animated children’s film Sir Billi is an even more bizarre swansong for Scotland’s most famous movie star than his last live action film, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. As the voice of the titular Billi – an elderly skateboarding vet living in a remote Highland enclave full of talking animals, deranged policemen and oddly pneumatic women that appear to have been animated by a Russ Meyer fanatic – Connery has found himself participating in a film that makes so little sense it almost seems avant-garde. Sadly what shines through in screenwriter Tessa Hartmann and her director husband Sascha’s independently produced CG animation feature is delusional incompetence rather savant-like talent. Beyond the commendable entrepreneurial skills they’ve demonstrated in raising the finances to fund such an ambitious project, there’s almost nothing praise-worthy about the random-seeming jumble of scenes, characters and concepts. Co-starring Alan Cumming as the voice of a talking goat who thinks he’s a dog yet dresses like Bruce Lee in Game of Death, and featuring too many smutty double entendres and lazy 007 references, it’s rubbish in ways that seemed hitherto unimaginable.
White House Down (12A)
Directed by: Roland Emmerich
Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Woods
Don’t let anybody tell you White House Down is a better film than this year’s almost identical Olympus Has Fallen. It may feature Channing Tatum in the lead role, but it’s still an absolutely terrible action movie, made worse by how bland and bloodless it is. Directed by an off-his-game Roland Emmerich, it casts Tatum as an aspiring secret service agent who teams up with President Jamie Foxx to take down a bunch of homegrown terrorists after they seize the White House. The terrorists’ convoluted-to-the-point-of-idiocy plan unfurls in such a way that interest wanes from the moment we spend ten minutes in a lift shaft with the heroes as they listen to the bad guys outline their intentions. A blockbuster that’s stupid and fun has its merits, but a blockbuster that’s stupid and boring (and this is well over two hours) is unforgivable.
Insidious: Chapter 2 (15)
Directed by: James Wan
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey, Ty Simpkins
With the first Insidious movie, director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell (the team behind Saw) made a surprisingly effective demon possession movie that, true to its title, gradually built up a creepy head of steam before unleashing an entertainingly gonzo torrent of ghosts and ghouls. This second instalment expands the mythology, but in doing so eliminates the tension required to prevent the film’s more fanciful elements from overwhelming the story as a whole. Picking up where the first film left off, it homes in once again on stressed-out parents Josh and Renai (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) whose fractious marriage is put under more strain as the latter comes to realise that her husband, not her house, is the source of the otherwordly forces trying to take control of their children. That plotline inevitably means the film begins to recall The Shining in places, although as it begins to delve into Josh’s backstory via a spot of spectral time travel, it actually starts to more closely resemble a horror movie version of Back to the Future: Part 2. As intriguingly out-there as that may sound, it just becomes exasperatingly silly and is never very scary.
The Artist and the Model (15)
Directed by: Fernando Trueba
Starring: Jean Rochefort, Aida Folch, Claudia Cardinale, Götz Otto
Set in Nazi-occupied France towards the end of the Second World War, this elegantly composed black-and-white drama suffers from the same problem afflicting the elderly sculptor referred to in the title: a lack of inspiration. Though pretty as a picture, it’s yet another story about an elderly male artist energised by a beautiful young woman and, like a lot of films about artists, offers very little insight into the production of great art. Veteran actor Jean Rochefort at least makes you believe that his cantankerous sculptor, Marc, actually believes what he’s saying. Alas, the film seems to want us to accept such things as read by having his new muse – a politically aware Spanish resistance fighter played by Aida Folch – eventually appreciate his way of thinking. That’s too bad, because at times director Fernando Trueba (Belle Epoque) seems to be pushing at the more interesting notion that this woman’s courage and political idealism will expose Marc’s refusal to engage with the seismic events going on around him as the real reason his inspiration has run dry. That’s an interesting perspective on the period, but it remains very much in the background.
• Reviews by Alistair Harkness