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Film review: In a World

Demetri Martin (Louis) and Lake Bell (Carol) in 'In A World..'. Picture: submitted

Demetri Martin (Louis) and Lake Bell (Carol) in 'In A World..'. Picture: submitted

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.

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* *

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*

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White House Down (12A)

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*

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* *

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• Reviews by Alistair Harkness

 

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