Though Jerry Lewis and the late Christopher Hitchens have said otherwise, women can be pretty funny. They just don’t get many opportunities, on film especially, to demonstrate their talents. True, there’s Tina Fey, and the “Bridesmaids” ensemble a couple of years ago, and most recently Maggie Carey’s “The To Do List.” But usually when a woman gets a chance to make a funny movie, like Leslye Headland last year and her film “Bachelorette,” nobody gets a chance to see it in theaters. Maybe Lake Bell’s “In a World . . .” will do better. Even Hitchens and Lewis would get a kick out of it.
Bell wrote and directed the film and also stars, and her voice, sensibility, timing, and pitch-perfect ear for the absurd layer every scene. Voice especially, because her character, Carol Solomon, works as a vocal coach, helping stars like Eva Longoria (she plays herself, one of many such cameos in the film) speak with a British accent without sounding, as one character puts it, like a mentally challenged pirate. By the way, as a writer, Bell has a knack for similes, especially when it comes to voices — “a voice like a sexy baby,” for example, or “a voice like an angry Muppet.” And since the dialogue reaches Howard Hawksian peaks in its overlapping rapidity, a second viewing is mandatory to catch all the toss-away quips.
But Carol wants to do more than just help others speak. She wants to be heard. Specifically, she has a secret ambition to become the next big movie trailer voice-over talent, the next voice to utter the familiar words “In a world . . .” now that the man who originated the phrase (the real-life, and deceased, Don LaFontaine) has died. Unfortunately, her father, Sam Sotto (Fred Melamed), a voice-over talent about to receive a lifetime achievement honor from the “Golden Trailer Awards,” doesn’t think she has what it takes. In fact, he might be afraid that she does. Insecure, and a macho pig, Sam doesn’t think women belong behind the microphone. Consequently, in an act of paternal treachery, he plans to pass his torch to another up-and-coming talent, Gustav (Ken Marino) — who is also a macho pig.
So, in addition to being very funny, “In a World . . .” also makes a case for women to be, well, heard. But in terms of cohesion and narrative, it doesn’t quite come together as a movie. Motivations seem squishy, and the story sputters episodically, as if all the best bits of a great TV series, like Fey’s “30 Rock,” for example, were spliced together. And if Bell herself were a male macho pig, she wouldn’t get away with all the bimbo stereotypes; they are often hilarious, but after a while, they don’t make you feel good. Nonetheless, in a world where women like Bell can be heard and enjoyed, the future of comedy seems assured.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.