Remember the name Lake Bell, because she has become my newest deadpan obsession until the obligated Jason Bateman/Janeane Garofalo love child is finally birthed. Despite (or perhaps, in spite of?) her moderately successful career as a background actress, Bell has turned her attention behind the camera for her full feature directorial debut, the quirky dramedy IN A WORLD...
Employing her own confidently awkward appeal to the film, in which she stars and also wrote, Bell adds a delightfully charming nuance to a piece that is otherwise safe in its varied attempts to approach feminism. Bell plays Carol, an unsettled young woman whose latest stab at adulthood leads her to become a vocal coach not for singers but for women whose ineffective or childlike speaking voices hamper them from advancing in life (hilarity ensues whenever Carol imitates them behind their back, and sometimes to their face). But that just pays the bills, or rather the small amount she gives her dad, Sam (Fred Melamed) to live in his house. What she really wants to do is be a voice-over artist. First, she has to climb over the very high gender barrier firmly set by so many men before her, including virtuoso Don LaFontaine and her very own father, who's become an icon in his own right.
The premise of Bell's debut is so rich and so off-the beaten-path that it you really want it to succeed on all fronts. But it is her grand attempt to illuminate every theme as broadly as possible that ultimately becomes the film's downfall. She's got so many great angles and truly interesting characters that once she introduces one, she leaves it dangling at its most fascinating point and starts another one.
Outside of the film's core, there is the adorably imperfect couple, Carol's sister Dani and Moe (played by Michaela Watkins and Rob Corddry). They don't really serve much purpose to the main theme of the film, but they are certainly a fun duo to watch. Dani works as a hotel clerk, whose extracurricular activities result in Moe feeling betrayed. Meanwhile, Carol, who's been living on their couch after her father finally kicked her out of his house, feels right in the middle of it, which means on top of her own gargantuan goals she must fix their problems as well.
In the middle of the film there is the all incumbent uncomfortable dinner scene with Carol, Dani, their dad Sam and his young wife, Jamie (Alexandra Holden). We learn here that Dani, like Carol, isn't much of a fan of the juvenile bride, and that both sisters have unresolved mommy issues, which further add to their cold relationship with their dad. However, their relationship with their mother isn't completely revealed here, yet this scene is so sharply written but still starkly executed. It comes across empty and bleak, and doesn't fully capture what makes their relationship so troubled. There is something important here that gets left on the table.
Carol's own flirtatious and infectiously goofy relationship with her voice-over producer, Louis (an equally charming Demetri Martin), stops short of becoming a full-on romantic comedy with its vacillated development.
Fragmentary sub plots aside, Bell does try to approach some of the parallels between Hollywood sexism (and ageism) and what appears to be similarly happening within the voice-over artist industry--misogyny, inequality, elitism and the overall resentment of female progression. Carol gets a rude awakening at a particularly fancy schmancy industry soiree that pits the modern legends (like Ken Marino's Gustav) and their groupies against the wannabes and their blind ambition. It's that epiphany that further propels Carol's determination to succeed and conquer.
But right when we think the whole feminist aim really starts to take off, especially after a particularly honest encounter with voice-over power player Katherine Huling (deliciously played by Geena Davis), it's sideswiped by Sam's melodramatic meltdown upon realizing that the tables have turned and he's no longer the master of his professional universe. You feel that at the pinnacle of Carol's success a man steals the glory. It's an odd sequence of events that play against the film's most provocative theme and don't exactly flow smoothly.
Though the film comes off amateurish at times, Bell's keen eye for identifying and turning the most uncomfortable scenarios into natural comedy is on clear display here. The outline of the film shows a lot of potential for Bell's future directorial projects, and ability to bring out the authenticity in her characters and cast, but the execution leaves much to be desired. Until then, lets add Bell in the running for our imaginary live action adaptation of "Daria."
Rating: C+ (**1/2 out of *****)
IN A WORLD... is now in theaters. Watch the trailer: