1 September 2013
You sit down in the theater. The lights dim a bit while they spool up the previews, and a deep voice comes up over the black screen, as images begin to fade in. “In a world that time forgot, a new figure emerges” (or something like it), the voice intones.
99% of the time the voice is male. Until Lake Bell’s delicious romantic comedy In a World…, most viewers have never considered the the ways that this pattern that we unconsciously accept in movie theaters has ripple effects across gender behavior and expectations in our society. Nor is it just the film previews. Advertising that “counts” — i.e., airlines and cars, not laundry detergent or yogurt — pays its voiceover artists better and is virtually always a male domain.
The film pivots around the real-life fact that the “in a world…” opener cliché was retired after the death of legendary voiceover artist Don LaFontaine. In fact, the world depicted in In a World… is of the cutthroat competition for voiceover work in Don’s wake. Bell writes, directs, and stars as Carol Solomon, a wannabe voiceover artist who primarily works as a voice and accent coach and whose narcissistic father, Sam (real-life voiceover artist Fred Melamed), openly discourages her — believing he’s telling her the hard truth. “Dad, you’ve made me painfully aware of that my whole life,” she replies. “I’m not being sexist, that’s just the truth,” he pronounces.
The comedy moves at breakneck pace through a bunch of subplots including Carol’s lovelorn producer (the ever adorable Demetri Martin), who desperately wants to date her; Carol’s sister Dani (Michaela Watkins), whose marriage to Moe (Rob Corddry) is floundering on the rocks of boredom and routine; competition and old-boy networks within the voiceover industry, particularly circulating around a sleazy upcoming voiceover star named Gustav (Dan Marino); and Carol’s ongoing quest to tape the interesting voices and accents she hears in the world around her.
Indeed, the film moves so briskly and features such an array of favorite comedic actors — including Nick Offerman, Geena Davis, and Jeff Garlin among the many I’ve already listed — that you get a lot more punch per minute than most comedies. Just taking the scenes in which voiceover artists exercise their mouths and tongues, or sit in steam rooms to keep the chords moist gives you a nicely weird and textured view of the lives of these people.
You should go to this film for the comedy — it’s just a funny, tight film — but you’ll stay for the feminism. The central problem depicted in In a World… is not merely thwarted female ambition or a failed father-daughter relationship, even as both of those problems matter to Carol. Rather, it’s that female voices get stuck in a vicious circle: women never learn to sound authoritative because there are no models for sounding that way. Worse, women learn patterns of speech like uptalk (ending words or sentences on an up-note as if asking questions), silly filler (the surfeit of “likes”), and high-pitched sexy baby voices, all of which detract from what women say, and therefore demean women’s authority overall.
When Carol rolls her eyes at the sexy baby voices, I wanted to kiss her on the lips. It helps that she’s so gorgeous in a normal-woman way — no discernible makeup, no nose job, no caps on her teeth.
Some critics have accused Bell of “dissing women’s voices” by mocking what women cannot help: that their voices can sometimes be naturally high-pitched. I don’t see it. Bell criticizes nurture, not nature — the cultivated Valley Girl tics, falsely high sexy-baby pitches, and girlie in-talk that women learn strategically or unconsciously as part of socialization. She also indicates, correctly, that these patterns can be unlearned.
Nor is this one of those movies in which the woman realizes her ambition by being better and more hardworking than all the men in sight. Remember G.I. Jane (1997)? Demi Moore showed us there that women can be Navy SEALS, but the plot seemed to indicate that it could only be true if they could actually out-push-up every man in sight.
In a World…, in contrast, doesn’t say that Carol ought to succeed because she’s the best voice out there. Rather, it says something more profound: that we need more female voiceover artists because it will directly and subconsciously change how people think about women.
I admit, I’m probably more hyper-conscious about people’s voices than most, so may have found this film all the more enjoyable (those who know me will laugh at the understatement here). My mother has a beautiful voice. I’ve written academic pieces about voice. I form unnatural attachments to certain radio or podcast voices and regional accents — Slate’s Dana Stevens, Christiane Amanpour (now with CNN), NPR’s Wade Goodwyn, PBS/NPR’s Charlayne Hunter-Gault, singer Steve Earle, and many others.
And on a personal note, can I just say that simply in casting Demetri Martin as the smitten producer, In a World… has given me a gift? Because there’s something about his sweet goofiness, helmet of hair, and fantastic schnozz that says LOVE INTEREST to me.
So what’s not to like? This is basically Feminéma’s wet dream of a film: a female-directed, female-written, feminist film about voice that stars a gorgeous but not cookie-cutter actor with a real-looking nose — AND Demetri Martin is chasing her. Maybe I need to see it again. You should see it too, even if you just like breezy rom-coms. And then tell me what you think.