Every year, Toronto begins to take on certain themes by the festival's midpoint, and this year there were some strong, serious dramas involving characters who go it alone in life, and much of the time to their own detriment.
You knew the late Don LaFontaine's deep baritone voice well. Nicknamed "The Voice of God" and "Thunder Throat", he was heard for roughly three decades on some 750,000 commercials and over 5,000 movie trailers. His signature line is the title of this film, and would go something like, "In a WUUURRRLD where ONE MAN...". That line is such a cliche that it's become a parody of itself. An edited video of LaFontaine opens "In a World...", the new indie comedy that is the writing and directing debut of actor Lake Bell.
She plays Carol, a mid-thirty-something slacker still living with and mooching off her dad Sam (Fred Melamed)--known as the next best thing to Don in the voice acting business--though everyone agrees that Don's a legend in his own stratosphere of deep sound. Carol's a voice coach whose wish is to empower the women in her classes to make themselves heard more effectively. Whether she's empowering herself in her own life is open to question. After dad boots her from his house now that his bubbleheaded new girlfriend is set to move in, the new gig Carol's up for appears to fall in her lap almost more by accident than through her own determination.
And what a coveted gig it is: a major Hollywood studio in the midst of producing the epic female-centric "The Amazon Games", starring a Braveheart-looking Cameron Diaz, will be the first project since LaFontaine's death to bring back his signature phrase and it looks like Carol has a real shot to be that franchise's trailer voice. The hitch is that her father Sam, famous in his own right and the leading contender for the part, has a plan to allow for his protege Gustav Warner (Ken Marino) to get the job. When Sam learns his daughter's in the running, he's none too pleased and jumps right back into the race to get the gig, setting up a competition between all three voice actors.
I think had "In a World" left it at that it would have been able to find some real time to examine the line of work these characters are involved in, which is where our fascination with this picture lies. But the film then takes a right turn with Carol camping out on her married sister Dani's couch, involving us unnecessarily with a totally generic subplot involving her and her husband Moe (Rob Corddry). Their story appears to exist only as filler to extend this movie into feature length territory.
Meanwhile, at the recording studio, a funny sequence involving Carol's coaching of Eva Longoria gives way to more generic sitcom situations as timid engineer Louis (Demetri Martin) has an apparent crush on Carol, though it appears his entire staff is hotter for her than he is since we never see them actually doing their jobs, only commenting on his love life. Carol and Louis' interactions take the form of the recent indie-hipster-quirk for piling on awkwardness and infantilizing its grown adult characters who appear stuck at about a grade 8 level of emotional intelligence when it comes to dealing with romantic interests. I don't recall them actually having one real conversation of any import. So much for being heard.
Complicating the plot even further is a party sequence at Gustav's home where he seduces and beds Carol in a way that serves to revive the old term "sucking face". He's interested in her for about two seconds until he learns that she's in line to take his gig. Then he resumes being the total clod that he is. I don't think it's a flaw in casting because Ken Marino is right for this role, but like so many of these characters, they're not allowed to be interesting as much as they're made to behave according to plot requirements. And how is it exactly that Carol and Gustav don't know each other already? Doesn't seem plausible in a wuuurrrld with so few voice actors.
Fred Melamed, so good as Sy Ableman in "A Serious Man", is equally strong here as Sam. He does smarm-with-a-smile so engagingly that you almost forgive the fact that his character is a great big jerk. I didn't really buy his fame. He's got a best-selling autobiography and followers? Huh. But that's the screenplay again, which also makes him a bit of a cartoon character; it doesn't ring true that after allowing his adult daughter to live with him all those years that all of a sudden he just kicks her out and offers no assistance. A decision his character is forced to make towards the end of the film rings just as hollow.
It's a strange thing with the men in this movie; they're all slimy bastards except for the good ones, who are only ever allowed to be impish, awkward dweebs. What we really want are for the characters we like to act at least a quarter as confident as the characters we detest.
I'm not so familiar with Lake Bell's t.v. work. I've watched some of those "Children's Hospital" episodes and found them funny. She has a unique presence in this film; lanky, acid-tongued, a little tomboyish. The gold in this material is her obsession with the way people sound, with accents and dialects and peculiar inflections. It's a credit to Bell that I wanted to see much more of her than most of the archetypes around her. I think she cheats herself by taking the gold and using it only as a backdrop for another fairly routine indie rom-com.
I would have to recommend to Lake Bell that she watch both of Miranda July's films (the spectacular "Me and You and Everyone We Know" as well as "The Future") for ideas on how to take the teevee out of her screenwriting and to replace it with a much more freeing exploration of characters and decisions rather than archetypes and plot details that feel as though they were written up on index cards and post-it-notes. Indeed, this screenplay won the award at Sundance, but it was a slow year and in the midst of one dark drama after another, the guffaws in this film along with her and Melamed's performances were more than enough to tip the scales in this movie's direction.
Though I laughed out loud maybe five or six good times and enjoy the way Bell is able to use putdowns so effectively, it's hard for me to call this a good film. If they cut out the sister stuff and lessened the plot requirements, this would play well as a 55-minute pilot to a snappy HBO series. But as a film, it wears thin and gives an interesting profession too little screen time.