Most women born after 1960 or so probably had parents or teachers who told them they could be anything when they grew up. Even so, plenty of fields remain largely boys' clubs, métiers in which women aren't necessarily unwelcome — just strangely invisible. In the world of In a World . . ., the directing debut of preternaturally understated comic actress Lake Bell, voiceover work — specifically the authoritative yet anonymous man-speak heard in movie trailers — is one of those fields. Bell, who also wrote the script, plays Carol, an underemployed vocal coach who aspires to be a voiceover star like her callous, egomaniac father, Sam (Fred Melamed). The problem — even in 2013 — is that no one really thinks a woman can do the job.
Then again, as supple and confident as Carol's voice is, she doesn't exactly look as if she could do the job. This isn't just your garden-variety underachiever; Carol is so underachieving that, at age 31, she hasn't changed her wardrobe since the 1990s. It's one of the movie's subtle oddball touches that Bell's Carol, a tall drink of water if ever there was one, strides around unselfconsciously — and a little cluelessly — in overalls and college-kid babydoll dresses. But even if she's a neurotic goofball, she's persistent. And with the help of smart but bashful sound engineer Louis (Demetri Martin), who harbors a crush on her, she scrambles to the top of the voiceover heap — only to earn the resentment of key players in the field, most notably her nasty old dad.
Bell has made a lively, modern screwball comedy with a terrible title; the dialogue moves fast and sometimes takes nutty, unexpected loops, like puppies scrambling over one another in a basket. The title, mentioned perhaps too many times in the course of the movie, refers to the opening words of 1,001 cheesy trailers, a phrase that became a trademark of sorts for real-life voiceover king Don LaFontaine, who recorded uncountable trailers, commercials, and promos in a career that spanned more than 40 years. (He died in 2008.) LaFontaine's name is invoked frequently in In a World . . .; he's the pro everyone is trying to top. In Hollywood, being dead doesn't stop anyone from competing with you.
Bell captures the insularity of certain professional pockets of Hollywood, with all their petty rivalries and backstabbing. But she's sharpest in her exploration of what makes women desire success, and what prevents them from getting it. Carol, for all her awkwardness, is extremely competitive — there's no stopping her once she gets a shot at a prestigious gig. (Hers might become the official voice of an upcoming girl-power adventure "quadrilogy" called the The Amazon Games.) But her success also makes her instantly unattractive to a certain kind of man. The delectably sleazy Gustav (Ken Marino), a far more experienced voiceover artist who has taken a shine to her (but doesn't know her line of work), turns against her when he learns she's "stolen" the job he wanted. His scorn is blatantly sexist, as if Carol's triumph were a negation of his manhood.
Bell packs a lot into In a World . . ., and at times the movie threatens to spin out of her grasp. Somehow, she reels in every stray thread just in time: A subplot involving Carol's sister and brother-in-law (they're played, wonderfully, by Michaela Watkins and Rob Corddry) begins as a seemingly negligible trifle and turns into something surprisingly touching. And even if In a World . . . isn't, strictly speaking, a romantic comedy, it's far more appealing than most contemporary movies that are sold as such. The romance between Carol and Louis takes forever to get cooking — their mutual awkwardness is the modern-day equivalent of a bundling board. But it's also part of their charm as a couple-in-training; their respective peculiarities fit together just right. Bell and Martin never make these two horrifically adorable.
Bell, who has so often played second or third banana (in pictures like It's Complicated and No Strings Attached) makes a strangely fetching leading woman. There's not a lot of vanity on display here: Carol's long, barely combed hair is half mouse-brown, half Clairol-red, as if she'd simply forgotten to look in a mirror for eight months. And while Bell is undeniably a stunner, as Carol, she looks almost masculine from certain angles — still beautiful, but not exactly cuddly or yielding.
In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Bell acknowledged that she wrote and conceived of Carol as the kind of woman she'd like to play, a more fleshed-out version of a supporting character: "Obviously in studio pictures there are only a handful of roles you can get," she said, "and often the lead character — if it is a female character — isn't that fun. I enjoy playing the best friend or the weird co-worker or whatever." In a World . . . is a movie about ambition that is itself quietly ambitious. In a world where remarkably few women either get or create the opportunity to make movies, Bell has already figured one thing out: You don't have to shout to be heard.