Lake Bell: Into a Man’s World

4 Oct

I skipped Woody Allen’s latest, Magic in the Moonlight. The trailer looked fabulous–filmed in the south of France–and I do like both Emma Stone and Colin Firth, of course, but the reviews were, well, mixed to lukewarm, and an Allen film truly needs the critics’ collective stamp of approval in order to break into the mainstream. Oh well, life is short, movies aren’t cheap, and my schedule these days is already hectic enough. On the other hand, I was surprised to see that the film was still playing in first-run theaters as recently as two weeks or so ago. Maybe I’ll catch up with it at my neighborhood discount house.

Now, back to Allen. A year ago, or thereabouts, Cate Blanchett was at the top of her game, earning rapturous reviews for playing Allen’s modern interpretation of Tennesee Williams’s tragic Blanche Du Bois, in Blue Jasmine. Blanchett went on to clean-up rather decisively in the year-end awards derby, ultimately claiming her second Oscar, and her first for Best Actress, in a field that also included Sandra Bullock in the box office phenom Gravity, which was earning film festival raves at this time a year ago, still a few weeks shy of its actual wide release.

In_a_World_poster

Quick! How many women have actually written, directed, produced, and starred in their own feature films? Not too damn many, relatively speaking. With In a World, Lake Bell joins the likes of Barbra Streisand who established herself as a quadruple threat with 1983’s Yentl. More recently, the late Adrienne Shelly wrote, directed, and played a supporting role in 2007’s Waitress, but, per the IMDb, she is not credited as a producer. Once upon a time, silent film star Mabel Normand wrote, directed, and starred in shorts, but her producer credits are scant. Of course, Lena Dunham is making, well, a world of difference with her HBO series, Girls; meanwhile, in the entirety of Oscar history, only Warren Beatty and Orson Welles have been represented in all four such categories for single achievements (Heaven Can Wait and Reds for the former; Citizen Kane for the latter.)  Woody Allen, Roberto Benigni, Kevin Costner, and Clint Eastwood are all Academy triple rather than quadruple threats. This is off the top of my head stuff, but, of course, as I often tell my students: more research might be needed.

Also generating plenty of buzz at this time last year was Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said, a solid romantic comedy which paired the popular TV actress with James Gandolfini, who’d passed away earlier in the summer; however, this is not a piece about Enough Said though the movie saw many year end accolades, including a Golden Globe nod for Ms. Louis-Dreyfus  and  a SAG nomination for Gandolfini.

Yet another film more or less making the rounds about this time last year–to generally positive reviews–was In a World, an indie showcasing the talents of quadruple threat Lake Bell: actress, writer, director, and producer [Note: I began writing this in September.], a massive undertaking for anyone, compounded by the fact that 1. Bell had never written nor directed a feature film. 2. She’s a woman in an industry still dominated by men; 3. She was clearly working with a micro-budget, reportedly less than a million–and in a mere 20 days to boot [1]. To be perfectly frank, the movie leaves quite a lot to be desired visually as though Ms. Bell ran short on light bulbs; however, despite the movie’s shortcomings, it still generates plenty of goodwill–and laughs.

In a World throws the spotlight on the little reported world of voiceover artists, everything from vocal coaches to product spokespersons and, most crucially, movie trailers. You know, the ones that begin with those three immortal words, “In a world…,” made most famous by the unmistakably resonant tones of Don LaFontaine, who passed away in 2008. In Bell’s world, the late LaFontaine’s considerable shoes have never been filled though one Sam Soto (Fred Melamed), now on the cusp of winning a “Golden Trailer”  lifetime achievement award (basically a real thing), looms as a ripe candidate.  The male dominated movie trailer world holds much fascination for Soto’s daughter Carol (Bell). She’s not exactly a slacker, but she still lives with dad while trying to support herself with freelance vocal coaching gigs and the like though that arrangement will be short-lived thanks to dad’s latest squeeze, who’s about the same age as Carol. Evidence of Bell’s screenwriting savvy surely comes to mind with her treatment of the young girlfriend played by Alexandra Holden. Bell sets up an expectation within the audience and then spins those expectations in a new and refreshing direction.

I like Bell as an actress. She damn near stole scenes with her exquisitely dry delivery as Alec Baldwin’s trendy second wife in It’s Complicated, no easy thing that, what with a cast that includes Baldwin, Steve Martin, John Krasinski, and, oh yes, someone named Meryl Streep.  Seriously,  Bell is all over the place in her own pic, not  only as Carol who slips in and out of a number of schticks, such as cockney mob wife, Russian Princess Leia, and something called “Sexy Baby,” voice among others. What most people don’t know, unless they listen to the audio commentary, is that Bell’s voice is heard throughout the movie in unexpected ways, serving a variety of off-camera bits, including a crusty old male agent with a thick accent. Besides the goofy voices, Bell performs commendably, working almost effortlessly at playing a true misfit: stringy auburn-to-maroon hair, bad posture, questionable wardrobe choices (30ish woman wearing preppy plaid skirts is bit peculiar, right?), and appropriately goofy line readings to go with goofy expressions, such as “sister code,” which is as successful with her sister as “fetch” is with Regina George and the rest of the Mean Girls. Her gift for physical comedy is plenty evident in a short scene in which she wakes up, tangled, in a strange bed. It’s a short bit, maybe only a minute, but it’s skillful work. Oh, and she’s not much of a dancer either. By the way, Bell’s performance earned her an American Comedy Award nod for Best Actress though she lost to Melissa McCarthy in the execrable, if hugely popular, The Heat.

As good as Bell is an actress, In a World really showcases her abilities as a crackerjack screenwriter. On one hand, her movie works as a Hollywood satire in miniature. For example, most films about the movie biz focus on the biggies: actors, directors, producers, and even writers. Someone is either trying to get ahead, is on his/her way down, or is itching for a comeback—and the stakes are high. Bell shows all of the competitive, cut-throat nature and petty bureaucratic bull-shit that’s par for the course in everything from Sunset Boulevard to The Player, Ed Wood, The Muse, and For Your Consideration, but she throws the spotlight on a part of Hollywood that’s unknown, and then asks the audience to actually care about people who take enormous amounts of pride and care doing a job that pretty much functions as background noise for most moviegoers, Don LaFontaine’s signature “In a word,..” not withstanding.

On the other hand, In a World is a comedy about a family ironically derailed by a lack of communication. At least two family members work in a field in which “voice” is everything, but they’re not so good at talking openly and honestly with each other; moreover, Bell provides a nifty twist in that the competition is between a father and a daughter rather than a mother and a daughter, a trope played out in such show-bizzy features as Mommie Dearest and Postcards from the Edge.  All of this comes together hilariously in a sequence juxtaposing an awkward pursuit between father and daughter and a “preview” of The Amazon Games, a Hunger Games-style dystopian action pic, the first we’re promised of an upcoming “quadrilogy,” which has to be the funniest word ever invented for a movie, and, of course, the characters in all their fevered enthusiasm keep repeating it. Again, Bell has a gift for coining goofy expressions.

Still, there’s room for secondary familial discord in Bell’s pic except that I don’t want to give too much away, but I will guarantee that, again, storylines converge in the most confounding way, resulting in a wildly inappropriate exchange as Carol bursts through a door exclaiming at the top  of her lungs, “Guess who’s a slutty whore!” You may actually have to stop to catch your breath before you allow yourself the giddy pleasure of a laugh. Along with that, Bell packs plenty of one-liners in her script, but they usually operate on a delayed beat. In other words, the moment may have already passed when the weight of the gag finally hits. Now, that’s talent, but don’t take my word for it. Bell’s accolades for either writing, directing or both include a Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival–huge win, that–as well as Alliance of Women Film Journalists and Independent Spirit nominations; moreover, two groups, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association along with the Phoenix Film Critics Society, honored In a World as the year’s most overlooked or unsung film. Indeed, for all the honors she scored, I still wish her movie had packed a bigger punch at awards time, meaning a Writers Guild nod, a shot at the SAG Best Ensemble prize, or, of course, recognition at the Golden Globes. I don’t know that an Oscar nod, even in the screenplay category, was ever really in the cards.

Of course, it’s no surprise that Bell demonstrates generosity with her fellow actors, starting with aforementioned Fred Melamed as the preening peacock of a dad whose self-regard is tempered with false modesty . In real-life, as Bell explains on the DVD commentary, Melamed actually works as a voiceover artist, but he definitely exercises his comic chops playing a proud fish in a pond, no fishbowl, that might actually be bigger (not smaller) than he thinks. Ken Marino as yet another preening peacock, an emerging star in his field, but more stooge, ultimately, than stud. I was, and am, amused by the wonderful Demetri Martin in the role of a sound engineer who pines for Bell’s Carol. Martin reminds me–in the best possible way–of Jason Schwartzman and  the wistful romantics he’s played in such films as 2005’s Shopgirl. Martin and Bell, or rather Louis and Carol, play well off each other’s eccentricities.  Stephanie Allyne contributes fine work as the office ditz. Oh, and In a World benefits from a variety of cameos, thereby coming across as more authentically Hollywood: Geena Davis, basking in the role of a powerful producer with a strong feminist agenda; Eva Longoria as herself but in a context that must be heard to be believed, and Cameron Diaz, seen briefly as a warrior in the much anticipated trailer for Amazon Games. Gotta love that quadrilogy.

Thanks for your consideration….

Official In a World website: http://inaworldmovie.com/

[1] Read the Rolling Stone article: http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/lake-bell-finds-her-directorial-voice-in-in-a-world-20130809 

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3 Responses to “Lake Bell: Into a Man’s World”

  1. Vivian Rutledge 05 October 2014 at 4:03 pm #

    Loved “In A World”. Saw it at the Angelica in a sneak preview, and Lake Bell was on hand to discuss the film and help judge a voice over contest with audience members. Looking forward to more from her!

    • listen2uraunt 06 October 2014 at 12:45 pm #

      Nicely done, Viv! I wish I could have been at the Angelika for the Lake Bell Q & A.

      • listen2uraunt 06 October 2014 at 12:46 pm #

        I feel confident that I could have won the voice over contest. Wink!

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