In a world where females continue to be largely shut out, it’s refreshing to spot a small groundswell among smart young women who are writing and directing quirky projects in which they can star. On TV, Lena Dunham is the current It girl. In films, Zoe Kazan wrote (though she didn’t direct) last year’s delightful Ruby Sparks. This year, Julie Delpy shared a writing credit on Before Midnight, and Greta Gerwig co-authored Frances Ha. But you’ve really got to hand it to Lake Bell, who wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the newly-released In a World . . . Along the way, she won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance, and the film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.
Back when I was making movies for Roger Corman, I sat through many a movie trailer. You know, those brief “coming-attractions” previews designed to attract audiences by showcasing a film’s best lines, most vivid action moments, and perhaps an exploding helicopter or two. In the Roger Corman universe, the trailer-cutter usually spoke his own voiceover narration, and I was quite accustomed to hearing a familiar voice drop down to basso profundo level to enhance its dramatic impact. Little did I know that everyone was imitating the late Don La Fontaine, who had been dubbed “The Voice of God” for his legendary vocal powers. La Fontaine’s skill at manipulating his resonant baritone proved especially effective in trailers for futuristic flicks like Terminator 2. And he virtually owned the evocative opening phrase, “In a world where . . . “
In Lake Bell’s movie, she’s the daughter of a voiceover specialist (the wonderfully pompous Fred Melamed) who’s considered almost in La Fontaine’s league. Bell casts herself as Carol, a struggling vocal coach who’s good with accents but has never dreamed of trying to beat her dad at his own game. Partly that’s because women are virtually never chosen to narrate theatrical trailers. But Hollywood is launching a hot new “quadrilogy” based on the futuristic exploits of some fierce yet very female Amazon warriors, and suddenly Carol’s in contention for the plum voiceover job.
Bell clearly knows this corner of Hollywood exceedingly well. Her attention to vocal delivery throughout the film means that the audience is listening extra-hard to the way everyone speaks. It goes without saying that – during the scenes in which three main characters are prepping audition tapes for the Amazon Games gig – voices that are normally pleasant suddenly drop into the basement, the better to suggest portents of doom. Carol’s voice, in this pressure-filled situation, also takes on a sultry tone that’s pretty darned irresistible (and much at odds with her generally gawky girl-next-door manner).
Though the film’s chief characters are voiceover artists, others in the cast also have voices worth listening to. The plot makes room for a handsome Irish chap whose accent Carol is determined to snag on tape, as well as a Russian housekeeper, a Japanese passerby, and a pretty Brit from a neighboring apartment who needs to borrow the shower. Among the American-born characters, the women’s voices are particularly memorable. Geena Davis, who plays a short but important scene with Bell near the end of the film, captures the sound of a blunt, no-nonsense studio executive. There’s also a dyke, a ditz, an office slut, and (especially) a Valley Girl attorney, whose “sexy baby” squeak works against her landing a suitable law-firm job. At the fadeout, Carol is educating young women to use their voices more effectively, much as Lake Bell is raising her voice to introduce her audiences to a woman’s world.