To call Lake Bell a magnetic, intelligent, blithely screwball leading lady in the Carole Lombard tradition might be selling her short. With “In a World … ,” a rollicking laffer about the cutthroat voiceover biz in Los Angeles, she proves herself a comedy screenwriter to be reckoned with. She’s also a curator of talent that makes her debut feature a giddy, inside-Hollywood romp. Star power is limited — Bell and casting director John Papsidera have put together an A-team of supporting thesps — but word of mouth can only help a film with too many laugh lines to be absorbed in one sitting.
The pic leaps its principal hurdle, making the voiceover industry something auds will care about, via the strength of its characters, who ably demonstrate the kind of petty jealousies and basic desires that afflict any field. Opening with a tribute to the recently deceased Don LaFontaine — who had the voice that defined the “in a world … “-style movie trailer (best uttered with imperial bombast) — Bell sets up the sector as experiencing a kingly vacuum: Who will inherit the mantle?
Scrambling ensues. Carol Solomon (Bell), an underachieving vocal coach, has lived in the shadow of her pompous, randy father Sam Sotto (a terrific Fred Melamed), the presumptive heir to the LaFontaine throne. Sam is imperious, but he has rivals, including the much younger Gustav (Ken Marino) and, to everyone’s wonder, including Carol’s, Carol herself.
Subplots flourish. Having been thrown out of dad’s house to make room for his new and much younger girlfriend, Jamie (a sweetly daffy Alexandra Holden), Carol moves into the undersized apartment of her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) and Dani’s husband, Moe (Rob Corddry), who suffer a matrimonial crisis of a most distressing sort.
At the studio run by Carol’s chief admirer Louis (Demetri Martin), she helps straighten out disastrous soundtracks, including one featuring Eva Longoria as an accent-mangling cockney pirate. Louis thinks Carol has the chops to land the voiceover crowd’s most coveted prize: the trailer gig on an upcoming fantasy “quadrilogy” that hews very close to “The Hunger Games.” Whether she can displace her own father — and Gustav, with whom she also has some baggage — is the question.
A great deal of the enjoyment of “In a World … ” is provided by Bell’s vocal agility; she mimics ditzy, squeaky-voiced women to their face, and then nimbly shifts into the stentorian tones of a sci-fi voiceover queen. Carol is a solid if standard character — the young woman looking to find herself, and believe in her own talents — but Bell gives her a smart and charming comedic twist.
Her cast, including the always reliable Corddry, the revelatory Watkins and Martin (an offbeat but on-point object-of-desire), come through valiantly. There’s also a smattering of cameos, including Longoria, Geena Davis as the studio chief behind the quadrilogy, and what appears to be an uncredited Cameron Diaz in the movie trailer inside the movie.
Production values seemed off during the film’s Sundance premiere: Scenes looked distractingly dark, and the sound was occasionally indistinct, which doesn’t help a feature with so much clashing dialogue.