After 11 years of working in television and film roles as the thankless girlfriend, wife, or best friend, actress Lake Bell finally figured out a way to put women front and center.
Bell worked on a feature script for several years and her agent suggested she should direct it, too. But Bell said she felt too uncertain behind the camera for a feature film, so her agent told her to direct a short film first to get her feet wet. Bell made her writing and directing debut with Worst Enemy in 2010. It stars Michaela Watkins and played as part of the shorts program at Sundance. The film’s success led to Bell being named one of 2012’s Inspiring Filmmakers by LUNAFEST.
In 2013, Bell made her feature film debut with In a World. Upon first glance, the film is a solid romantic comedy. Upon second glance, it casts a critical eye on the sexism and misogyny present in the voice-over world, specifically for movie trailers, and more broadly, the sexism in Hollywood.
“I think the key to a great romcom is to not fight against the genre,” Bell said in an interview with The Independent. “The trend more recently has been to apologize, or be snarky, so it’s an anti-romcom. Just lean in and embrace the fact it’s a love story and it’s funny and it’s light. It can still be uber-smart and deal with zeitgeist issues.”
Carol Solomon (Lake Bell) starts out the film as a female vocal coach, but her ultimate dream is to become a voice-over artist like her father, Sam Soto (Fred Melamed), who is a big name in the voice-over world, a strictly male-dominated industry. The film is cleverly layered, but it’s not so constructed that it loses sight of the story or misses out on character development.
Carol’s journey to become a voiceover star starts at the beginning of the film, her dad, kicks her out of his house because his much younger girlfriend is moving in. Carol seeks refuge with her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) and her husband, Moe (Rob Corddry).
We see Carol’s day to day life at the studio, not achieving her dreams, but helping Eva Longoria with a Cockney-like accent, where a cast of characters offer advice from the peanut gallery. They include Louis (Demetri Martin), who harbors a not-so-secret crush on Carol, Henry (Nick Offerman), and Cher (Tig Notaro).
There’s a lot going on in this movie, character-wise, which seems counter-intuitive to the frequent ramblings and awkward pauses in the dialogue. Carol, despite her professional vocal precision, is often an awkward, rambling speaker. But that makes her an honest and lovable character because most of us can identify with feeling awkward either in social situations, conversations, or at work.
Yet there are moments that allow the characters to breathe and observe. While at a party at Gustav Warner’s house, Carol wanders around the house, finding a small room that’s filled with his travel souvenirs and her child-like delight is apparent on her face.
Sam’s misogyny and sexism runs so deep it prevents him from supporting his daughter. When he finds out that Carol has been getting voice-over gigs for movie trailers and she’s auditioning to be the VO on the new quadrilogy of films based on a beloved book series, he bluntly tells her they won’t pick a freshman vocal. Even further determined to prevent a woman from encroaching on his territory, he decides to audition for the quadrilogy along with Gustav and Carol.
There are men in the film who support Carol’s career, including Louis and Dani’s husband, Moe.
Even when Carol finds out she’s been awarded the voice-over work for the quadrilogy The Amazon Games, there’s a lot of doublespeak when she thanks the female producer, Katherine Huling (played by Geena Davis) for giving her a shot. Katherine says she didn’t give her the job because she was the best “man” for the job, but she picked her because she’s using her for a “bigger purpose.” She wanted Carol’s VO to be the one to inspire every girl who hears it. Carol’s not sure what to make of this reply. Again, this speaks to a frequent attitude: when women become successful, they’re turned into symbols because they’re the “first woman” or one of the “few women” to do/accomplish/win fill-in-the-blank.
The character, in part, may be based on a real encounter Bell had. “A really successful woman in my industry said to me, ‘You better get comfortable with not being able to be perfect at anything.’ That haunted me, and then I realised being perfect is a tall order and I’ve never claimed to be perfect at anything. I’m pretty good at stuff, and I’d like to continue to be pretty good!”
Instead of becoming the next great voice-over artist, though, the film jumps ahead to show Carol using her vocal coaching skills to help women sound more professional. In an interview with The Dissolve, Bell explained that Carol finds helping people more satisfying than striving for an ego-driven career like her father’s. As Carol says in the film, making women sound like women instead of sexy baby dolls is “good for the species.”
Bell is attached to directed the adaptation of Claire Messud’s novel, The Emperor’s Children, with a script by Noah Baumbach.