Lake Bell, described by R. Kurt Osenlund as “the knockout who’ll yell louder than you at the screen in a sports bar, not to mention drink you under the table,” makes her auteur turn in In a World… It’s a lovingly crafted character piece in the Hollywood-on-Hollywood mold, set in the apparently cutthroat trailer-voiceover world. Bell, who also writes and directs, plays Carol, a vocal coach who wants to break into the trailer game, now an open field after the death of real-life voiceover king Don LaFontaine. However, she finds that it’s a boys’ club where she has to contend with the eccentric golden man-child Gustav (Ken Marino) and the patriarchal pomp of her own father, Sam (Fred Melamed).
We spend roughly equal time with Carol’s career woes in an industry populated entirely by misfit toys and lost souls, and with her family and relationship troubles; some of those conflicts push the film toward a dramatic register before being yanked back by a goofy character beat. That juggling of moods and tonalities lends the film a lumpiness that wavers between rough-hewn charm and the production of an uncomfortable tension. Overall, the film’s flow displays a sketch-and-vignette sensibility working its way through the vastly different demands of a feature. In terms of plotting, the script also leans a bit too heavily on the standard beats of love triangles and struggling artists and family melodrama. There are gestures toward messing around with those conventions that never really come to fruition and are played rather straight instead.
But with able assistance from her Childrens Hospital cohorts and a strong supporting cast, Bell holds the thing together through sheer charisma, and in fact the foibles of the movie only start to show when she absents herself for extended stretches of time. When she’s on screen, all the pieces just seem to work; she handles subtle bits of business and the broader strokes of farce with equal aplomb. And in a film so concerned with vocal presence and the rhythm of language, she displays a knack for both snappy one-liners and the give-and-take of sustained banter; her sisterly rapport with Dani (Michaela Watkins) and the extent of their “sister code” are the soul of the film. In a World… is a clear example of talented performers more than making up for thin material; it bears all the marks of a scattershot first feature while revealing the depth of Bell’s cinematic talent and potential.