Carol Solomon, daughter of one of the great voice-over (V.O.) artists, Sam Sotto (Fred Melamed), has been getting by as a voice coach, so overshadowed vocally and cowed psychologically by her lionized, lion-voiced father that she’s never allowed herself to consider a career in the same field. Growing up with an implicit sense of inferiority by virtue of being female—“Let’s face it,” he tells her with barely disguised disdain, “the industry does not crave a female sound”—Carol has nevertheless not steered clear of the field, but has made a career of sorts as a vocal coach. (As a side note, this writer couldn’t help but notice that his last name, Sotto—as in sotto voce—is an interesting twist for a bombastic man with a booming voice, making one wonder whether Bell chose it for the irony, and has everyone pointedly pronounce it “So-to”).
We see in several snippets that Carol is dedicated to her craft: at the laundromat, she tries in vain—a bunch of kids burst in and tackle a nearby dryer, laughing and arguing in their native tongue—to record the voice of an Asian immigrant to add to her collection of accents so that she can study them. (Bell herself would do this as a child, having “fantasized about being one of the great voice-over artists” from early on.)
At the recording studio where she serves as vocal coach for the soundtrack set, we see one poor woman (Eva Longoria, in a chuckle-worthy cameo) trying to disastrous result to come off as a cockney pirate. Carol comes to the rescue, demonstrating the proper tone and inflection (Bell’s aptitude impressed even the London Film Review, which called her accent “flawless”), causing Louis, her sound-technician boss (an endearingly puppy-like Demetri Martin), who’s been battling a crush on her, to insist that she put her talents to the test when the voice-over artist for a film promo goes AWOL.
Not only does Carol ace it; to her amazement and slowly dawning delight, she gets engaged for a couple of high-profile spots—and finds herself in the running for the biggest gig of them all: the trailer for the upcoming blockbuster fantasy film “quadrilogy” The Amazon Games, whose portentous opening lines, made (in)famous by the legendary voice-over artist Don LaFontaine (samples of whose work open the film), have been heard in more promos than would fill a filmic trailer park.
Alas, as luck and life would have it, there’s a fly in the V.O. ointment, and his name is Gustav (Ken Marino), the suave, darkly debonair Don Juan of the voice-over world, who’s sure the gig is his for the asking—especially when Carol’s father (“I’m going to support you by not supporting you,” he condescends to his hopelessly “female sound” daughter) assures him of his support. Which will be short-lived when it looks like Carol’s “sound” may be just what they do want, causing Sam to swiftly switch allegiances—to himself. Feeling a threat to his and his gender’s dominance in the field (not to mention his fragile sense of self-importance), Sam begins buffing his own vocal chords for the job.
Thrown into this volatile mix is the amatory, predatory guile of Gustav, who quickly conquers a beguilingly dressed, slightly tipsy Carol at a party, not knowing who she is. (This is one scene in an otherwise savvy script that may cause some head-scratching: a woman of that age, with her experience and smarts, would hardly be such a pushover—literally—despite Marino’s ability to, in Bell’s words, “play so unlikable and likable at the same time.” Perhaps her ditzy early Doris Day here is an in-joke, a cinematic salute to the days when LaFontaine, who died in 2008 after a career of near a half-century, was in his prime). The flames turn to dragon fire when Gustav finds out that this seemingly ditzy, dishy chick is now his chief competition, and in fact, the woman who beat him out for that first V.O. job. The games—Amazon or otherwise—are on. (The eye-rolling irony of the Games being a film series about woman power that dates back millennia—to tales firmly lodged in myth and legend—is an added fillip).
Finishing the furnishings of this game board are subplots involving Carol’s sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) and brother-in-law Moe (Rob Corddry), and her father’s twenty-something midwestern girlfriend Jamie (Alexandra Holden), who starts out as a classic “dumb blonde” painted in such broad strokes as to make the viewer wonder whether Bell let herself be lazy with this ostensibly incidental character. (She didn’t). As the beleaguered Dani, dealing gamely with crises financial, vocational and marital, Watkins, a “Children’s Hospital” alum for whom Bell specifically wrote the role, offers a sympathetic portrait of a woman who wants to be a supportive sister while being torn between admiration and happiness, tinged with a tiny bit of envy, for her sibling’s success.
As she likewise did for Corddry (creator and star of “Children’s Hospital”) who plays Moe, Dani’s equally woebegone hubby, whose woes will seem to gain a tantalizingly temporary reprieve (we could’ve told him—in your dreams) in the shape of a sexy new neighbor who wants to borrow his, um, shower. Corddry’s disbelieving yet hopeful, wide-eyed befuddlement makes Moe at once an object of compassion, contempt, and comic relief, our reluctant judgment aided and abetted by Bell’s direction and Seamus Tearney’s skillful camera, whose jagged movement makes Moe’s confusion tangible.
Bell is a wry and engaging escort as actor, author (for which she won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance) and director through the endemic back-stabbing that’s part of the world, as In a World . . . portrays it, of voice-over recording, depicting its prima donnas and their victims, challengers and hangers-on with sitcom flair and flashes of dramatic insight. At both Gustav’s party and the climactic awards ceremony, Bell’s limited but evidently affecting experience as an aspiring V.O. artist closed out by the cliques whose own members are cutthroat rivals shows us a closed-in society characterized by duplicitous glad-handing of Shakespearean proportions (“That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain”—Hamlet, do I have a troupe for you). Here the camera, the lighting, and Tom McArdle’s editing give up society-page snapshots that make us distant observers of the proceedings while at Carol’s elbow, seeing it all from her alienated, mechanically grinning PoV.
Co-star Fred Melamed’s fortuitous 20 years’ experience as a voice-over actor enabled him to understand with unique insight both that world and the character of Sam Sotto, “a guy,” he told an interviewer, “so consumed with making himself great that he [isn’t] a good parent.” His rich voice, at tums booming and oleaginous, and his ability to be, in Bell’s words, “so hilarious and excruciating at the same time” also makes Sam Sotto less a caricature than a character, and a man surprisingly capable of exhibiting some when things look darkest.
A lesson that will be reversed, in a way, for his daughter, who will learn—via another cameo, but this time, of the Isn’t that . . . whoa variety—that even “in a world” where all seems, at last, right . . . things are not always what they seem. Which should be self-evident to someone like Carol, who relishes her ability to seem to be someone else. We’ll have to hope it is. Even if that “world,” the real world, may be forevermore as mythical to those “consumed with making [themselves] great,” as that of a gazillion-grossing Amazonian blockbuster.
Running Time: 93 minutes.
In a World . . . opens in the DC Metro area on Friday, August 16. Here is the DC area screening schedule.
In a World… website.