Notebook: 'In a World' of sexism, Lake Bell finds her voice

Roadside

By Kayla Upadhyaya, Managing Arts Editor
Published September 13, 2013

Lake Bell is trying to tell us something. I was first introduced to the pervasive actor during her season-one arc on “Boston Legal,” but I first fell in love with her as Cat Black, the occasional nudist, occasional dead doctor on Rob Corddry’s wickedly hilarious medical satire, “Childrens Hospital.” Bell’s certainly recognizable, having appeared in various romcoms in recent years, and she’s beloved in the comedy community. But if her feature film “In a World … ” is any indication, she’s also an emerging director we should all be tuning into.

In her directorial debut — which she also wrote and stars in — Bell introduces us to the faces behind trailer and commercial voiceovers. This premise tricks us into believing the film is confined to a niche world. The voiceover realm is relatively unexplored by cinema, and Bell gets points for singularity. But the film expertly navigates a balance between specificity and breadth, making it both the most charming and piercing movie I saw all summer.

Let’s start with the details. Bell populates “World” with infectiously quirky characters, first and foremost with her own character, Carol, who hopes to be the next big thing in voice acting. Her father Sam (Fred Melamed), a voiceover superpower himself, insists voiceover work has no room for women, and her competition, the eccentric and crude Gustav (Ken Marino, who has become a maestro at playing douchebags), agrees. Demetri Martin plays bumbling sound guy Louis, whose crush on Carol never dips too far into incessant nice-guy territory. He’s joined in the sound booth by deadpan Heners (King of Deadpan himself, Nick Offerman), the super-eager, sloppy-drunk Nancy (UCB vet Stephanie Allynne) and Cher (a rare onscreen appearance by comedian Tig Notaro).

Now, zoom out. The arena in which these characters operate might initially seem confining, but Bell maneuvers them in ways that probe and comment on a much larger world. The gender politics at play in vocal performance are found in every corner of the entertainment industry. In her world, Carol is one of the few female voices scoring theatrical trailers. In our world, Lake Bell may have had her film debut at the first Sundance Film Festival to feature as many movies made by women as by men, but big-picture trends show we’re a long way away from equity in filmmaking.

The movie scrutinizes the way we talk in literal terms. Bell wages her war against the vocal fry and uptalk, with Carol offering voice makeover classes to ladies with a penchant for ending all sentences with a question mark. It’s a personal war Bell is hell-bent on tackling: Read any post-“World” interview with her — she’ll inevitably mention her disdain for recent vocal trends. And if you ever have the fortune to meet her, be sure to police your “like” usage.

But the movie is also about the way we talk to each other and the insidious sexism that slips into conversations about the working world. Gustav and Sam constantly remind Carol she isn’t good enough, never mentioning anything about her skills or experience, only citing her gender as a reason she’ll never make it big time. They aren’t critiquing the system; they’re perpetuating it. And sometimes it’s more severe than words. Gustav literally uses sex to assert his power over Carol after learning she’s his competition for the ultimate trailer gig. Sam, not knowing that the “chick” Gustav is demeaning is his daughter, is complicit, encouraging his protégé to mess with Carol’s mind. Sam eventually croons out an apology to his daughters, but I find it very telling that it was never his idea to do so. He only relents after insistence from his girlfriend Jamie (Alexandra Holden), a woman herself who is likely also impacted by Sam’s roaring sexism.

The overwhelming feeling of accomplishment that pours over Carol — and us as viewers — when she’s picked for the big gig is followed by a deafening blow. A casual encounter in the bathroom with the studio exec responsible for the choice reveals the truth: Carol wasn’t picked because she was truly the best. She was picked because she was a woman, and audiences would be into that because it’s different and trendy. To a certain extent, it shouldn’t matter why she got the job. But the fact that Carol is chosen because of tokenism and not necessarily fairness further proves just how far away the long-term, systemic change Carol craves is. It’s a distant fantasy. She dreams of a “broad new world” where women’s voices are valued just as much as male voices are, where women voice actors get work because audiences and executives truly want to hear their voices, not because they’re a novelty. I similarly dream of a world where we don’t necessarily regard women like Bell as “female filmmakers,” but “filmmakers,” full stop.

An inhale of taut excitement emanates from Carol as she steps into the booth to utter those titular words for her recording. I felt that same feeling as I left the theater after “In a World … ”. It’s the feeling I wanted to feel when walking out of 2011’s “Bridesmaids,” which people had insisted was a game-changer for women in comedy but ultimately fell short of my wildly high expectations.

“World” is a woman-written, woman-directed, woman-centric film that premiered amid a summer of typical dude-centric fanfare. Bell shot the film in 20 days for under a million dollars, and yet it’s one of the most ambitious movies I saw all summer. It’s a pleasant comedy as well as a biting scrutiny of misogyny, and that’s a tough balance to strike. Bell does it with as much cool-breeze ease as Carol spits out dialects. She’s certainly found her voice as a writer-director. And I’m all ears.