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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

_7NK0130.JPGSome 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.

IAW-7NK0608Nor 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.

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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.

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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.

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The days are getting shorter, and the semester has arrived at the truly ugliest and most miserable few weeks. Thus, it’s time for Feminéma to offer advice for those affected by the lack of sunlight in our lives. At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I have a six-point No Depression plan of music, food, and old movies, helpfully delineated below.

1. Acorn squash and crispy pancetta with sage and penne. This is so good and so seasonal right now. Just make it and tell me if I’m not correct. (I followed the recipe religiously except that I used both sage and rosemary. And don’t be fooled by this photo: the pecorino romano cheese on top is absolutely crucial.)

2. The music of Ella Fitzgerald. I want to give a special shout-out on behalf of her album with Louis Armstrong, Ella and Louis (1956), but really any of them will do. Soak up that voice, that range, and those fabulous standards as dusk falls and your acorn squash is baking and the pancetta crisping up in the pan.

Ella with Dizzy Gillespie

3. Pomegranates with any and all Middle Eastern or central Mexican dishes … or just on their own. Of course, in a perfect world we’d all live around the corner from a place that serves a killer chiles en nogada nightly (the fact that most of us don’t is enough to make me question religion altogether). But hey, pomegranates are everywhere in markets right now. So, learn how to open them with this handy video:

…and sprinkle the seeds on hummus, baba ghanoush, a lamb dish, or — if you’re very clever indeed — your own homemade chiles en nogada:

4.  The bluegrass album The Eagle by Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band (1998). I maintain that it’s very difficult to remain blue while listening to bluegrass music, perhaps because the sadnesses it describes are such simple, easy kinds of sadness (your girl fell for another man, for example). Overall, those trilling instruments — the mandolin, the fiddle, the stand-up bass, the banjo — do something to my soul that’s hard to replicate except in the form of Ella Fitzgerald.

This album makes me particularly happy because seeing these artists live back in 1998 is possibly the best concert experience I have ever enjoyed. They performed around a single microphone (this is old-school, folks) — so every time one of them took a turn as the featured soloist, the rest moved out of the way. It’s masterful.

5. Grapefruit, of course.

I got turned onto the magical healing properties of grapefruit by my Dear Friend, with whom I suffered some of the ugliest parts of our mutual careers. Sometimes she would tell me that it had been a two-grapefruit kind of day, and I would know exactly what she was saying.

It has become a part of my daily routine, what with fresh grapefruit juice relatively inexpensive year-round. But ’round about now I switch to the real thing. There’s something about the ritual of slicing it into portions and scooping up that beautiful flesh that helps.

6. The Lady Eve (1941), that perfect Preston Sturges comedy with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. It’s wickedly sexy, the ultimate in silliness, with Fonda as the slightly dimwitted millionaire’s son who gets caught in the snare of Stanwyck’s con-woman clutches. Just watch this scene, in which she watches all the other women on board their cruise ship try to snag him. Stanwyck gets him within minutes, naturally.

“Holy smoke! the dropped kerchief! that hasn’t been used since Lillie Langtry!” she proclaims at one failed attempt to get Fonda’s attention. Stanwyck was one of the first actors I wrote about when this was still a new blog — and she remains a favorite of mine. Never has she been more perfect than as the card sharp who makes her own happiness.

Those of you who suffer from seasonal affective disorder — perhaps in combination with all the other reasons to find this part of the year so hard to survive — will forgive me my light tone, the absurd notion that one could find music or a few ingredients to be a cure. I don’t mean to diminish this condition. But I do believe that there are external things that help me — and perhaps others, too — most of all by making us feel that our own actions might mitigate the worst of it.

Be strong, friends. And put some pomegranate seeds on top.

from In the Bedroom

Even if you have a hard time forgetting her earliest roles — as the gum-chomping, big-haired Brooklyn automotive expert Mona Lisa Vitti in My Cousin Vinny (1992) or the hopeless romantic Faith opposite Robert Downey, Jr. in Only You (1994) — Marisa Tomei has only become a better actor as she’s grown older and has found more interesting (usually supporting) roles. She has a delicate way of balancing humor and pathos with a slightly heartbreaking eagerness to please that is, in fact, a pleasure to watch even more now that we can see the lines on her face that show the cost of the effort. The way her mouth draws down now when she’s not flashing that eager smile at us — I find this unbelievably touching. Here’s my question: will she earn a starring turn that shows off her chops, or will she be forever relegated to making other actors look good?

from Slums of Beverly Hills

Tomei gradually developed a skill for being that girl — the one who’s fast-talking and gorgeous, but also neurotic and unpredictable and prone to self-destruction. As far as I can see she set the pattern with her scene-stealing supporting role in Slums of Beverly Hills (1998), as the protagonist’s flaky cousin Rita, eager to find prescription painkillers on her flight from rehab. I still laugh when I catch it again on TV, with her in the back seat of the car, engaging in this rapid-fire conversation with her cousin Vivian (Natasha Lyonne) and the older Eliot (Kevin Corrigan):

Eliot: I know this neighborhood. I do a lot of business up here.
Rita: Really? What do you do?
Vivian: He deals drugs.
Eliot: Vivian! Will you mind not going around misrepresenting me like that? Jesus. I just don’t want anyone to the get the wrong idea that I’m like some kind of school yard pusher.
Rita: Oh, I don’t mind. In fact, do you have anything for my nerves? You know, just laying around? Seconal, Demerol, Tuinal, Valium, Quaaludes, Percocet…
Vivian: Rita!
Eliot: Not my merchandise. I deal exclusively in pot.
Rita: That shit makes me paranoid.

from The Wrestler

If her earliest variations on this part had solely comedic goals, they quickly transformed into a kind of sweet pathos. For years a minor rumor circulated that she had not really won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for My Cousin Vinny, and that the aging Jack Palance, who announced it, had simply mis-read the card; but what we’ve seen for 20 years now is an increasingly talented actor who continues to win awards and nominations for her great performances. In Happy Accidents (2000) she played Ruby, who’d gone through too many relationships with loser boyfriends — so by the time she meets Sam (Vincent D’Onofrio, when he was actually a good actor, before his sad descent into Law & Order) she’s got a hair trigger for anticipating problems. In In the Bedroom (2001) and The Wrestler (2009), she appears as even more poignant women, single mothers whose past wild lives have left them in bad circumstances, wary. Don’t get me wrong — in both films she’s decidedly a supporting actress, not a lead (and in both cases was nominated for that award by many film awards institutions; for the latter she received a stunning eighteen nominations and eleven wins). Those many nominations indicate her terrific skill with a fundamentally limited part.

from Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

It’s limited because ultimately these stories focus on the men who offer themselves to her, whether or not she wants their help. Only in the latter movie does she get to reveal much complexity — and she’s wonderful as the erotic dancer Pam. (Let me note here that she might well have won so many awards for her part because she showed no hesitation in draping herself over the hives-inducing Randy [Mickey Rourke] — I cringed almost as much at the idea of touching his freakish body as I did during scenes of Randy’s post-wrestling injuries.) There’s a great scene in which the sad-sack Randy, facing forced retirement from wrestling, spirits her out of the club to talk privately in the cab of his van. The minute she realizes that he wants to date her, she recoils — her sympathy for his health disappears behind her need to protect herself from every single one of those sad joes who fall a little bit in love with the idea of her in her topless, lap-dancing persona. Her performance there was pitch-perfect and so true in its flow that it felt almost like an experience of my own. In fact, I’ll bet you a thousand dollars that this scene split perfectly down gender lines: men respond by thinking, that bitch, why won’t she save poor Randy? while women think, please keep up that determination not to date customers outside the club; it can’t go anywhere good. Unbelievably, of course, her determination cracks.

from Cyrus

That’s the weird thing about Tomei’s parts: she seems to have become America’s #1 Attainable Girl. All those years ago on Seinfeld, George Costanza spent an episode or two trying to get a date with her, believing that he was just her type; she’s since had on-screen relationships with the gamut of shlubby Hollywood dudes, from Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny to Philip Seymour Hoffman in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) and John C. Reilly (and Jonah Hill, for that matter) in Cyrus (2010). Maybe it’s helped by the fact that she’s been willing to do nude scenes; by googling her one can find any number of fans’ screen caps of her in various states of undress from a range of films, making her nude body available to shlubby real-life men everywhere. Considering her remarkable beauty and serious acting skills, Hollywood seems to have decided that she is the last remaining hope of all those insecure, balding, and neurotic average guys out there.

One final note: the next time you see her, watch how much she can do to express her character via her admirable head of hair, that unruly mop of hers. Time and again, she uses her disorderly hair to convey both her beauty and yet also an abiding willingness to forget the lessons she was supposed to learn from past mistakes. (In those roles, she could be the poster child for Steve Earle’s haunting song, “Sometimes She Forgets.”) Her hair sends mixed messages, always pulling against her mind that knows better; it seems to signify that her body is tempting her toward more bad decisions in life. That, in conjunction with that eager smile which can so easily turn to disappointment, makes her compelling to both men and women.

Marisa Tomei will be 47 this year. Hollywood, can you find a leading part for this actor, or will she be forever relegated to supporting-actor limbo before she hits her 50s — a dreaded age of fewer and even more limited roles? Can we watch this sweetheart of ours become something more?