Tuesday, August 20, 2013

IN A WORLD Where Lake Bell is a New Must-Watch Woman of Comedy ...

IN A WORLD Review:

- Amazing ... I remember being introduced to Lake Bell back when she was the star of NBC's ill-fated LOST competitor, Surface. After that show's quick cancellation, she sort of fell off my radar, but re-surfaced (no pun intended) as part of a talented ensemble of comic actors on Adult Swim's hilarious Children's Hospital. Children's Hospital was and is one of the absolute funniest shows on TV, and is a showcase for some of the funniest female performances on TV. Going in, I never would have expected that the likes of Bell, Malin Ackermann, and Erin Hayes would make me laugh as much as perennial favorites like Rob Cordry, Rob Huebal, and Ken Marino, but they do. The women of Children's Hospital are each absolutely hilarious on the show. And now, clearly, Lake Bell has learned well from her comedic colleagues. She wrote and directed IN A WORLD, filled it with funny actors, and herself puts in a winning leading performance. So yeah, back in the Surface days, never would I have imagined that I'd one day become a devotee of Lake Bell: writer/director/funny-woman. But here I am, convinced that Bell is one of the must-watch women of comedy here in 2013, and I'm psyched to see what she does next. And IN A WORLD is one of the year's must-see indie comedies. If you like funny things, I'd urge you to go watch it immediately.

IN A WORLD follows Bell as Carol, a woman who specializes in voice-overs, and who pays the bills as a voice-coach to Hollywood actors (her current gig: teaching Eva Longoria to master a cockney British accent). Carol's father Sam (a hilarious Fred Melamed) is a legendary movie-trailer voiceover guy - and Carol at once respects him and wants to follow in his footsteps, but also resents his inflated ego, and stubborn insistence that no woman could ever inherit the mantle of go-to movie voiceover person. The rift between them is made worse when it becomes known that a new, Hunger Games-style movie franchise is looking to bring back the classic "In a World ..." tagline for its first trailer. The studio is searching for someone new to give voice to the iconic copy, and Carol decides to throw her hat in the ring. But she ends up competing against her father's hand-picked protege, Gustav (Ken Marino), and against Sam himself - his ego gets the better of him, and he decides that he should be the one to bring back "In a World ...".

On one hand, the movie's quirky spoofing of the world of movie-trailer voice-overs is pretty hilarious, and makes for some great Best In Show-style moments of humor. On the other hand, the voice-over world is really just a backdrop for Bell to explore Carol's life - her relationship with her father, her dating life, and her struggle as a woman to break the glass ceiling of a male-dominated industry.

If all of that seems a little heady, don't worry. IN A WORLD is chock full of over-the-top humor that falls somewhere between Children's Hospital's anything goes absurdism and the darker, more low-key indie comedy of the Duplass Brothers and their ilk. What's interesting about the movie is that it isn't afraid to be absurdist and broad, but at the same time, it's got some more serious things to say about family and relationships. Plus, there's plenty of Hollywood satire and pop-culture parody thrown in for good measure. This gives the movie an at-times messy and tonally all-over-the-place feel. It can be jarring at times - especially when the film focuses on the strained relationship between Carol's sister (Michaela Watkins) and her husband ( Rob Cordry). Those scenes are interesting, but they take on a much darker, serious tone than most other aspects of the film. But Bell somehow makes it work. Bell the actress seems to glide pretty effortlessly between the film's more comedic and more dramatic moments. Ultimately, she and the movie prove so endearing that it's hard to fault it for its everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach.

What makes it all somehow gel into a cohesive movie is that Bell populates In a World with the kind of great comedic actors who, like her, can do a little bit of everything. I talked about Bell herself, but Rob Cordry and Michaela Watkins really do help make the movie work with their mix of comedic and dramatic chops. Demitri Martin - as a shy co-worker of Carol's who harbors a crush on her - is another standout in the film - he's a guy who can nail both a broad, goofy gag and a sincere, emotional scene. He gives the funny scenes sincerity and the serious scenes levity. And of course, Ken Marino kills it as usual as Gustav. Bell herself is excellent in the lead role. She's funny and likable, but in a way that stems organically from the character. What I mean is, this isn't just Bell mugging her way through the movie. The script is there to support her and help her craft a character that is both funny and real-feeling. That said, since she started on Children's Hospital, Bell has become a super-adept comedic performer. Her comic timing, her reactions, her ability to sell a joke are now seriously top-notch. The woman is good. Very good.

I'll also mention Fred Melamed. He's one of those guys who is always memorable (he might be the funniest part of the Coen Bros.' masterful A Serious Man). And he kills it here as Bell's father. He's naggy, obnoxious, boastful, and totally shameless. And Melamed's performance is pretty fearless. To see this middle-aged, portly, distinguished-looking guy say and do some of the things he says and does in this film - it's pretty shocking at times, but also, often, downright hilarious. Bell also rounds out her cast with a veritable who's who of funny people. Nick Offerman pops up in a small role as another co-worker of Carol's. Tig Notaro is a scene-stealer as another office mate. Even the great Geena Davis appears, as a movie studio exec who delivers a killer speech to Bell.

The film can be a bit rough around the edges, and it could have probably used some polishing. There are at times lulls between the jokes that really hit. But when the jokes and gags do work, they're really effective. And as for the tonal issues - while the shifts can be jarring, the net effect is the rare broad comedy that's also got some real heart and humanity to it. As the film builds, the disparate elements come together surprisingly well, culminating in a fantastic grand finale.

Overall, I seriously dug IN A WORLD. It felt like both the emergence of a fresh new voice, and like a continuation of the kind of weird, smart comedy that I love and actively seek out. If you like stuff like The State, Wet Hot American Summer, and Children's Hospital, you'll probably like this. At the same time, IN A WORLD is a different beast from those other things, as it brings a sincerity and heart to the table to compliment the crazy humor. The movie even makes you think a little about gender politics - in a smart, thoughtful way - even as it's making you laugh. Not bad - it's a pretty winning combo. Lake Bell: more, please.

My Grade: A-

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