Movie trailers have always been narrated almost exclusively by men—indeed, until his death in 2008, one man, Don LaFontaine, practically had the job to himself. The number of LaFontaine’s spiels that began with “In a world…” has likely been exaggerated, but that portentous phrase nonetheless instantly calls to mind the classic trailer voice: deep, booming, authoritative, über-male. Could a woman, however vocally gifted, ever crash that sausage fest of an industry? Lake Bell’s directorial debut, which won a screenwriting prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, doesn’t tap the full comic potential of this little-explored milieu, which is a shame; at times, Bell seems to forget her premise entirely. But there are enough solid gags—even if many of them are barely germane to the voiceover biz—to confirm her abundant talent.
As the movie begins, Bell works primarily as a vocal coach to the stars, including Eva Longoria (in an extended, self-deprecating, as-herself cameo). She has much loftier ambitions, however, and plans to audition for the plum gig of a trailer for a forthcoming Hunger Games-style franchise—whoever lands it, it’s suggested, will be the new voiceover king. Her competition, however, includes her own father (Fred Melamed), an established pro who’s been patiently waiting for years to claim LaFontaine’s throne. There’s also a sleazy young competitor (Ken Marino), with whom Bell gets sexually involved before either of them realizes who the other is. Bell’s life is further complicated when Dad boots her out of his house to accommodate a new girlfriend (Alexandra Holden), forcing her to move in with her sister (Michaela Watkins) and brother-in-law (Rob Corddry), who are having serious difficulties of their own.
Inexplicably, Bell devotes a significant amount of screen time to Corddry and Watkins’ rocky marriage, which is played mostly for subdued pathos rather than laughs. It’s strong material, actually, and both actors do fine work, but everything surrounding them is in a completely different register, making for some distracting tonal whiplash. In A World… is at its best when goofing on its ostensible subject, poking fun at young women who speak in interrogative singsong or fashioning a trailer for The Amazon Games that’s at once ludicrously overblown and frighteningly plausible. (In a powerhouse supporting cast that includes Nick Offerman, Demetri Martin, and Geena Davis, stand-up comic Tig Notaro gets the best single line—this generation’s equivalent of Bill Murray in Tootsie dryly noting, “That is one nutty hospital.”) The movie actually does feature a world—the insular voiceover world—and whenever it strays, it falters.