Sundance Review: 'In a World...' is a promising directing debut for Lake Bell
TV veteran also wrote, produced and stars in the voice-over comedy
Although she's worked steadily and bounced freely between comedy and drama, Hollywood has occasionally struggled to figure out how to properly use Lake Bell.
Fortunately for Lake Bell, there is a writer-director with the good sense to get the most out of Lake Bell. That writer-director's name? Lake Bell, of course.
The "Surface" and "Childrens Hospital" star is making her feature debut as a writer-producer-director-star with the Sundance U.S. Dramatic Competition entry "In a World..." And the results are encouraging. While Bell definitely shows some first-timer growing pains behind the camera, she's got a snappy ear for dialogue, a smart eye for casting and she's given Lake Bell what may be her best part ever.
As a fully realized film, "In a World..." is clever and sweet and while it may not linger permanently in my mind, it has me genuinely intrigued by Bell's potential as a multi-hyphenate.
More after the break...
Set against the backdrop of the Hollywood voice-over world, "In a World..." begins with a tribute to the late golden-piped legend Don LaFontaine before introducing Fred Melamed as Sam Sotto, an extremely successful voice-over star who has, never-the-less, lived in LaFontaine's shadow. And living in Sam's shadow is daughter Carol (Bell), a master of accents who has been bumping against the glass ceiling her industry's bias against women. It's an industry that would rather validate the peacock puffery of Ken Marino's Gustav Warner. Are Carol and the voice-over world ready for a change? You betcha!
Focusing on the voice-over community was a smart call by Bell. Within a an entertainment industry milieu that's all-too-familiar, Bell managed to find an under-explored corner. That lets her to chide a handful of predictable, but amusing, Hollywood targets, but also to dedicate an early scene to the marvelously loopy prospect of a vocal coach attempting to train Eva Longoria to do a proper Cockney accent. The script makes smart, inside-baseball jokes about ADR and young adult literary franchises, but it also gets a lot of mileage out of absurd warm-up episodes. There are running gags about a variety of accents, about women who talk like "sexy babies" and about, as the title suggests, LaFontaine's classic trailer-starter.
But just taking "In a World..." as a biz satire wouldn't be giving it enough credit. There's a fully charming romantic subplot between Carol and a sound technician played by totally game Demetri Martin. There are interesting sisterly moments between Carol and Michaela Watkins' Dani. And there is some fantastic stuff with the two girls and their egotistical father and his new girlfriend (Alexandra Holden), a voice-over groupie.
It's not surprising that Bell knows how to get the most out of Bell's dialogue. It's not just that she's mastered the proper cadences for her own banter, but she knows how to close scenes with with little comedic grace notes that make her character seem adorably insecure in a way that somewhat ameliorates the movie's oft-repeated, generally silly, suggestion that a character played by Lake Bell -- even a character wearing a wardrobe full of overalls -- would be considered plain.
Lake Bell casting Lake Bell in the lead in Lake Bell's movie was a good move, but getting Melamed for Sam was brilliance. The veteran character actor and Woody Allen favorite should have been nominated for an Oscar for "A Serious Man" and it's just such fun to see him getting this opportunity to play a bona fide lead role. It helps that you never doubt for a second that Melamed has right voice for this part. I feel like there's Fred Melamed/Stephen Tobolowsky/Michael Cristofer buddy film that somebody should be writing right now.
Tapping "Childrens Hospital" co-stars Marino and Rob Corddry was smart, as was getting hot-comic-of-the-moment Tig Notaro for a small part. Bell commits a minor sin in under-serving Nick Offerman, but letting Jason O'Mara do a part with an Irish accent almost [but not quite] makes up for that. In addition to the aforementioned Longoria, there are a few other nifty cameos that I'll leave as surprises.
As a director, Bell occasionally lets her co-stars push a little too hard in comedic moments, going either broad in Marino's case or loud with Watkins. It's reasonable that an inexperienced director -- Bell had a short at Sundance in 2010 and has helmed episodes of "Childrens Hospital" -- might put more faith in seasoned performers than her own dialogue at times. It's also understandable that "In a World..." looks rather cheap and claustrophobic at times, since I assume the budget was micro.
I think that Bell has larger budgets in her future and I think she'll also grow to trust her own writing more and more. If I were HBO or Showtime, I'd be setting up meetings and seeing if Bell has an eight or 10 episode TV series she wants to take ownership of. "In a World..." is a good start, but it really just whet my appetite for whatever Bell gets to do next.