In a World takes its title from one of the most comically overused openers in voiceover narration. There was a time, sure, when it seemed like the go-to way to introduce every alternate reality, otherworld, or bit of historical flux Hollywood had to offer, and comedic actress Lake Bell has figured out a way to capitalize on its easy appeal in a whole new manner for her first feature film as writer, director, and star. In a world where I've always felt a little uneasy about what Bell had to offer, her big debut comes as a genuinely pleasant surprise. Bell has long shown up in comic settings. She's one of the stars of TV short Children's Hospital and has appeared in any number of supporting roles as the go-to gawky sexpot. With rare exception, something about her past performances never spoke to me. Quite the opposite: I'm really used to the world where I'm kinda just irritated by Lake Bell's anxious brand of 'am I trying to be funny here, or am I trying to be sexy'; it never sat right, and it never seemed genuine. With In a World... though, Lake Bell writes herself, she directs herself, and in this frame, in this world, she's more natural, likable, genuine, and winning than a great many comedy heroes and heroines.
Bell writes herself into the role of Carol, a struggling vocal coach and aspiring voiceover actor trapped in the shadow of her father, Sam. Sam (Fred Melamed) is the go-to guy in the industry, a titan with a God-like boom, a forest of body hair, and a selfish narcissism that knows no bounds. We enter the story as the resurrection of the 'in a world' line looms on the horizon: a big, epic quadrilogy is coming down the pipe, and the voiceover industry is prepping for a fierce competition. The voice that books this campaign is bound for glory, and the natural stand-off seems to be between Sam and the much reviled, rather prissy Gustav (Ken Marino). Carol has been told numerous times that there's no way a female voice can succeed in their industry, and she believes it, to an extent. When dad kicks Carol out, though, a bit of sound studio happenstance leads to the career boost of a lifetime. The jump, with some quirky cheerleading from a charming sound engineer (Demetri Martin), means it could be anyone's game. Underdog story aside, this is a behind the scenes look at the movie industry that we haven't seen before, and Bell builds compelling characters around the absurdity of that single line.
There's rarely a dull moment throughout the run time of In a World..., and from the supporting cast (including Nick Offerman and Tig Notaro) on up, the picture is remarkable in its clarity, cheerfulness, and carefully engineered awkwardness. It is a straightforward comedy that's actually funny without losing any of its interest in the sort of character-driven, feel good stuff that lets it remain fresh and friendly. Lake Bell has written characters that actually manage to exist as dimensional human beings without too much outside pressure from forced, dumb plot threads or blurred edges. She manages, too, to inadvertently make a girl powered comedy that deals with a kind of chauvinism we haven't been repeatedly hit over the head with (or maybe haven't even noticed). It's seriously good, and, in this world marks Lake Bell as a triple threat to be reckoned with. Forget the Maxim spreads and dumb one-night-stand/younger girlfriend characters, she's beyond that now.