The first films of famous directors are often great to watch, in particular for those familiar with the rest of the filmography. Generally speaking, you can see ideas that will show up frequently (see: mixings of violence and humor in Reservoir Dogs, comically unfitting music in Blood Simple, or surrealism in Eraserhead). However, it’s not nearly as common for these movies to be of consistently high quality and fully realized direction. Fortunately, that is the case for Lake Bell’s directorial debut, which put her movie on my Top 10 of 2013 list and has me interested in whatever project she chooses to pursue next.
In a World… (2013)
Plot: Carol (Lake Bell) is a freelance voice actress who struggles to find work and lives with her father, Sam (Fred Melamed), a well-established trailer narrator. Some time after the death of legendary voice actor Don LaFontaine—who actually did pass away in 2008, and popularized the trailer trope of a narrator starting with, “In a world…”—Carol (Lake Bell) finds herself in a race with her father and his friend, Gustav (Ken Marino), to become the voice of trailers for a new “quadrilogy,” The Amazon Games, which will bring back LaFontaine’s famous three words.
The plot concept itself is, I think, really interesting, and it clearly comes from a loving place. Bell, who also wrote the screenplay, appears to know a lot about this industry, and she distills that knowledge into a screenplay that provides topical—but entirely accessible—humor. In a World… is one of the funniest movies I saw from 2013; the jokes are clever, natural, and well-developed. None of the humor is lazy, and even when the jokes are quick punchlines, they fit the characters and the story. For that alone, Bell deserves a lot of recognition.
Her skills go way beyond her writing, though, as the direction is phenomenal. Each shot is constructed far better than I would expect in most comedies, not to mention in a debut film. The cinematographer, Seamus Tierney, and Bell work well together. The imagery delivers the story effectively but also beautifully, and I appreciate the thought put into that aspect of the movie. Moreover, much like with the writing, the direction has a great sense of comedic timing, as seen in the shot construction and editing.
Bell as an actress also has great comedic timing, although she’s at her best when playing off of other characters. Fortunately, all of the other actors and actresses are in top form. Rob Corddry and Michaela Watkins, who play Carol’s brother-in-law and sister, have natural chemistry with Bell. Demetri Martin has a great turn as the awkward love interest, Louis, and he works with Bell’s script to provide a heart to what has become a tired character type. The secondary characters, including comedians like Tig Notaro and Nick Offerman, feel sufficiently well-developed despite their limited screen time. In fact, almost everyone—even Sam’s semi-obnoxious new girlfriend who is as young as Carol—gets some great shining moments.
I’m focusing a lot on these extra characters not only to convey how great of a screenwriter Bell is, but also to get across her biggest flaw as seen in In a World….she does not write antagonists well. Everyone that Bell seems to like is given a lot of development, even if they do something shitty. Sam and Gustav, however, are almost uniformly one-dimensional. They’re the big bad guys who represent over-entitled men raised on trust funds, men who are unwilling to recognize that they don’t deserve power just because they’re dudes with name-recognition. That’s a perfectly good point to make, not to mention an accurate and relevant one, and Carol’s attempt to break into the industry in many ways demands recognition of that problem.
This is a socially conscious film, and Bell makes no attempt to hide that, largely to great effect. Still, when everyone is given characterization, why settle for lazily written antagonists? Not only are the scenes where Sam and Gustav might as well be twirling curly mustaches written with significantly less nuance and skill, but they’re also kind of hypocritical. Sam and Gustav’s flaws are that they can’t see past themselves and their biases—i.e. they won’t recognize that Carol has earned her newfound acclaim and they don’t “deserve” anything just by being rich or famous—which means they can’t see the humanity in others. But Bell cannot see the humanity in them, either, and in fact they feel explicitly inhuman in an incredibly human script. There’s a similar, albeit far less significant, problem with most of the other non-central female characters, who tend to be written off as annoying because they, like, talk all dumb or whatever. That’s an unreasonably condescending viewpoint, I thought, especially in what is generally a movie that thinks women shouldn’t be written off by those with privileges garnered from their upraising (e.g. Carol, whose father is a voice actor, which gives her a huge advantage over those that speak with shrill voices). But maybe that’s just my opinion.
Either way, the writing for the antagonists probably bugged me more than it will for most people, but I thought that—for a movie which is, again, making a powerful statement with which I whole-heartedly agree—the inability to flesh out that last little bit barred Bell from achieving the perfectly neat piece that she has developed so well in every other area. That being said, this issue does not destroy the movie or pull it down significantly. In a World… is still great, and to have such a minor issue in a great movie—not to mention a great debut—is reasonably trivial. Bell is a great director, writer, and actress, and whichever field she decides to pursue, I cannot wait to see what she does next.