The title of In a World… references the catchphrase of one Don LaFontaine, who until his death in 2008 was the voice behind thousands of movie trailers. He teased car-chasing, landmark-exploding action pictures and epic, tearjerking bids for Oscar nominations with an impossibly plummy voice that earned him the nicknames “Thunder Throat” and “The King of Voiceovers,” not to mention millions of dollars. In the movie, LaFontaine’s real-life death is the catalyst for an epic rumble of another kind—the bid for a new set of pipes to take over as reigning monarch of blockbuster voiceovers.
The fact that a queen of voiceovers doesn’t even exist is both the focus of In a World and its raison d’être. Lake Bell, who also wrote and directed the film, stars as Carol, a vocal coach and dialect expert who longs to follow in the showy footsteps of her father, Sam Sotto (Fred Melamed), who’s only a few rungs below LaFontaine on the voiceover-superstar ladder. But instead of mentoring his daughter, Sam dismisses her ambitions entirely, telling her there’s simply no place for a woman’s voice in the business. He’s much more comfortable grooming young hotshot Gustav Werner (love you, Ken Marino!) to nab a breakthrough gig narrating the trailers for an upcoming “quadrilogy” called The Amazon Games. When a series of events catapults Carol into the running for the same gig, it sends both her father and his cartoonish protégé into a hilarious—if all too imaginable—pissing match.
If this sounds like a straightforward battle-of-the-sexes story with a father-daughter twist, it’s not. The tension in the film is as much about generational shifts and entrenched Hollywood clichés as it is about institutional sexism. Gustav, for instance, is the same age as Carol, but his preening ego gives him much more in common with the old guard of the voiceover fraternity: men who congregate in steam rooms and on vast patios to talk shop in a jocular manner that barely conceals their insecurity and loathing of one another. Carol, meanwhile, has in her corner a group of people who are more than ready to disrupt the industry sausage party, including Louis (Demetri Martin) a sound engineer with a crush on Carol, and his coworkers (Tig Notaro and Nick Offerman, who really need to compete in some kind of deadpan-off). And there’s something of a wink in the cameo presence of real-life woman-in-media activist Geena Davis, as the studio executive who decides the fate of the quadrilogy’s voiceover. She’s both ballsy and cynical, playing the kind of suit who knows she’s better than the pap she’s green-lighting but will take whatever incremental change can tweak an ossified old system.
Bell’s movie comes out of her own longtime interest in voice acting and dialect—she’s been obsessed with voices since childhood, and like her character has logged many an hour with a tape recorder, surreptitiously recording the voices and accents of strangers—and her frustration with the default assumption of male omniscience and authority in Hollywood’s disembodied-voice biz. “In the same way that a tampon commercial should be voiced by a woman because you’re asking women to buy it,” she said, “Shouldn’t female-driven movies or movies that are dedicated to women have a female voicing them?” she rhetorically asked the Huffington Post in a recent interview. The conventional wisdom that a female voice carries less universal authority than a male one has been chipped away to some extent—as a recent blog post here pointed out, the voices of artificial intelligence, for one, are increasingly female ones—but not in the realm of Hollywood blockbusters, where pop-culture change is not only slow but increasingly retrograde. (Could Thelma and Louise even get made today? Discuss.)
Given that In a World is all about voice and tone, it’s telling that a few reviewers can’t seem to agree on whether the film’s take on sexism in the microcosm of voiceover is acceptably feminine, way too feminist, or what. The Oregonian’s reviewer, Mark Mohan, notes that “Bell does a fantastic job of telling a thoroughly feminist story without being strident or didactic,” on the one hand, while Frank Swietek at One Guy’s Opinion complains that “too often [Bell] comes across as strident and pushy here, and as a result is a tad irritating.” The use of “strident” in both reviews, both by men, is telling—it’s one of those words that’s not inherently gendered, but seems only to be used to describe women and weigh whether or not their anger is acceptable to others.
Elsewhere, Slate’s Jessica Grose takes issue with something that Bell has talked extensively about, and lampoons in the film: the “sexy baby voice” and tendency to uptalk that many young women adopt, sometimes unknowingly. (“I grew up thinking a female voice and sound should sound sophisticated and sexy, a la Lauren Bacall or Anne Bancroft or Faye Dunaway, you know. Not a 12-year-old little girl that is submissive to the male species,” Bell told NPR’s All Things Considered.) This kind of unsisterly voice criticism, according to Grose, is way uncool, since often higher voices in women are a fact of physiology, not a mark of sexist socialization. But her beef with Bell seems a little overblown. Yes, there’s a running gag in the film that Carol keeps bumping into a young woman who asks her where she can “get a smoothie?” But Bell is far from the first to address the uptick in uptalk. One New York Times magazine article from 1993 identifies the spread of uptalk as a bona fide dialectic shift in American language; a 2006 piece in the New York Observer lamented “city-girl squawk.” In the 1980s, Saturday Night Live’s cartwheeling, baby-talking Victoria Jackson was a source of frustration for the comedy show’s other female players; more recently, Tina Fey built a 2011 30 Rock episode around the phenomenon of grown women talking like girls as a comedic persona. (Cristin Milioti, who played the “sexy baby” role of Abby Flynn, watched Paris Hilton talk-show appearances to prepare.)
Grose’s point seems to be that Bell shouldn’t call herself a feminist if what her film does is disparage women for a particularly girly affectation. I’d actually argue that In a World’s light touch (seriously, if this film sets off your strident-o-meter, you might be the problem) considers how the voices we develop—since no one has just one—allow us to amplify different parts of ourselves. When she’s outside a recording booth, Carol’s actually kind of a mess—she sleeps on her sister’s couch, wears clothes seemingly plucked from a lost-and-found box at a kids’ rec center, and is terrible at reading romantic cues from Louis. But when she puts on her voiceover voice, she glows with purpose. If anything, In a World questions just what about any voice is authentic and valuable. And with any luck, it’ll be Bell’s own calling card to more voiceover work.