Thursday, August 22, 2013

A comedy finds its voice

"In a world ... "

Remember when it seemed as if every Hollywood trailer began with those three words.

They were delivered in deep, sonorous and often momentous tones by the late Don LaFontaine , the man who provided the voice-over narration for more than 5,000 trailers. LaFontaine's voice became instantly recognizable to a generation of moviegoers who knew its sound even if they didn't know the name of the man to whom it belonged.

The new comedy In a World -- a debut film from director and actress Lake Bell -- takes a witty, engaging look at the contemporary world of voice-overs. Bell immerses us in a little-known corner of show-business, centering her comedy on a young woman (played by Bell) who's trying to make her mark.

Funny without feeling compelled to put pedal to the comic metal, In A World reminds us that every sphere of human activity -- regardless of how obscure -- tends to produce a hierarchy, an absurd pecking order built on a foundation of rampant egotism.

Bell's Carol faces major psychological and social roadblocks. She's trying to break into a male-dominated field currently ruled by her father (Fred Melamed), a voice-over actor who has had a major career and an ego to match.

We meet Melamed's Sam in a scene in which he tells Carol that she'll have to move out of his house because his new, 31-year-old girlfriend (Alexandra Holden) will be moving in.

Melamed, whose immense shaggy body is exposed in scenes set in a steam bath, qualifies as one of the most unusual screen presences around. He appeared as overly solicitous home-wrecker Sy Ableman in the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man. Here, Melamed becomes a reigning pasha of the voice-over world, a man so full of himself he believes he can pass his mantle to a younger successor, an equally puffed-up voice actor named Gustav Werner (Ken Marino).

And, of course, Sam enunciates as if careful pronunciation were all that's needed to demonstrate an obvious superiority of character.

Once ejected from her father's home, Carol takes up residence with her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins). Dani lives in a small apartment with her husband (Rob Corddry), a film editor who works at home. Dani works as a concierge in a Los Angeles hotel.

Not only does Bell capture the highly competitive world of vocal acting, but she also has made a smart and funny comedy that includes characters who are colorful, a little odd and mostly good company.

Principal among these is Louis (Demetri Martin), an insecure sound engineer who helps Carol's career and who also has a crush on her.

The movie eventually begins to revolve around a highly sought after voice over job, the trailer for a quartet of movies called The Amazon Games. The promotional plan for Amazon Games calls for revival of the legendary phrase, "In a world."

Bell, who has played secondary roles in movies such as What Happens in Vegas and who has appeared in TV shows such as The Practice, demonstrates talent both before and behind the camera.

In so doing, she's accomplished something commendable: She's made a movie about people whose preoccupations often make them seem silly, but who still refuse to be confined by the rigid borders of caricature.

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