I am not a fan of voice-over movie trailers. To me, a narrator’s voice trying to glamorize an upcoming film alienates me from the actual story and belittles my intelligence, for it bears the assumption that I can’t evaluate the film’s potential without someone explaining to me how great the movie is going to be. And the industry knows this too: voice-over trailers are by now a memory, too often the subject of homage or parody. Without question, however, the booming voices over two-and-half-minute montages have for decades defined the wonder of the silver screen. In sharp contrast to the once ubiquitous voice-over trailers, the world of voice actors remains recondite to the general public, its portrayal as hidden as the faces behind the microphone — until now. Titled after the phrase coined by the legendary voice actor Don LaFontaine, “In a World…” fills the gap in the public imagination with a sense of ease and goofiness that characterize the sophisticated humor and the sharp wit of Lake Bell (“Boston Legal”), whose triple threat in writing, directing and acting in the film has established herself as a new force to be reckoned with.
The film roughly follows the daily life of Carol Solomon (Bell), a voice coach whose burgeoning career puts her into serious contention with the voice-over industry’s heir-apparent Gustav Warner, played by Ken Marino (“Burning Love”), as well as her own father Sam Soto (Fred Melamed, Hampshire College ’78), who is about to receive an industry lifetime achievement award. As the three battle to narrate a highly sought-after trailer for the fictional “The Amazon Games” tetralogy, Carol navigates the unexpected turns of independent adulthood as she moves out of her father’s house and juggles the affection of Gustav and Louis (the delightful Demetri Martin), an endearingly gauche sound engineer at the studio Carol works with. Meanwhile, Carol unwittingly becomes entangled in her sister’s marital crisis sparked — believe it or not — by an Irish accent.
It is rare to see a film as fulfilled in the artistic vision of a female filmmaker as “In a World…,” especially one drawing inspiration from a male-dominated arena. (According to Horatia Harrod at Telegraph, only once has a woman ever been the voice for a major movie trailer: Melissa Disney in the trailer for the thriller “Gone in 60 Seconds” 13 years ago.) Yet Bell handles her three roles with equal alacrity, her execution as slick as a hot knife cutting through butter. As a lightweight screwball comedy with rambling dialogues, the film feels like a whimsical trip, its detours as refreshing to explore as the main path. Even though this kind of narrative essay requires nothing less than wide-eyed fascination to appreciate — otherwise it would seem to lack focus — Bell’s ingenuous writing blends the mundane with the fancy to keep that fascination alive in us: we are eager to follow through, but not too eager to lose patience with the details.
Bell respectably shies away from the self-congratulation or the sensationalization that often accompany works shedding light on a little-explored corner of society. “In a World…” uses the life of Carol and other voice actors only as the means rather than the end. Instead of mystifying the characters, the film harnesses our curiosity of them to illuminate their life as familiar and intimate to that of our own, not without hunting for jobs, losing loved ones, dealing with everyday problems and successfully navigating messy courtships. Assisted by indie photography maven Seamus Tierney (“Liberal Arts,” “Adam”), the laughs, the tears and the many intentionally awkward pauses are all palpable. It might be a story about the people most of us have never met, but it is also a story we can all relate to dearly.
Perhaps it is due to the charming humanization throughout the entire film that the arbitrary sublimation of the ending comes as the biggest disappointment, where in a mere span of ten minutes we suddenly find ourselves catching up on not one, but two grand messages. Granted, the film does dip briefly (one or two lines meant to be funny rather than insightful) on gender norms, and Carol’s struggle as a female voice in a world (forgive my reference) of baritone is apparent, but the feminist twist in the end sounds too much like a plug-in for Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” to be taken seriously. And even though the development of the film imbeds family dynamics, the warm and fuzzy “blood-is-thicker-than-water” speech at the climax all but negates the delicacy of the script before that moment. It is like finishing a dainty, painstakingly prepared dish with a thick coat of barbeque sauce: some people might like it, and the food is still there, but the nicety of flavors is sacrificed.
As demand for household names elevates, voice actors these days find their existence cornered by celebrities: just take a look at the star-studded cast list of recent animated films like “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson) or “Hotel Transylvania” (Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Cee Lo Green). If the music industry is any indication, a beautiful voice alone will no longer go far. To a certain degree, then, I do hope that the legacy of Don LaFontaine, whose deep, magnetic and richly layered “Voice of God” decorated thousands of movie trailers in the past decades, will evolve, transform and prosper, be it in the form of the endlessly fun accents that Carol arduously records from ordinary people, or the next iconic sound to have people talk about for years (e.g. Andy Serkis as the voice of Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy). After all, it is no less than a miracle the wonder a sound from two foldings of a thin membrane can elicit. May the magic live on.