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‘In a World ...’: Lake Bell finds her voice as director

‘IN A WORLD ...’ ★★★1⁄2

Carol Lake Bell

Sam Fred Melamed

Louis Demetri Martin

Gustav Ken Marino

Dani Michaela Watkins

Roadside Attractions presents a film written and directed by Lake Bell. Running time: 93 minutes. Rated R (for language including some sexual references). Opens Friday at Evanston CineArts and Landmark Century.

Updated: September 17, 2013 7:07AM

In a world where independent, low-budget films would be just a figment of the imagination, Lake Bell would be cruising along with a nice but unspectacular career as the unconventionally beautiful, wisecracking best friend in big-screen romantic comedies, maybe the second-lead detective on a TV show.

Fortunately for Bell and for us, we don’t live in that world, so a talented actress who gets third or fifth or seventh billing in mainstream fare such as “What Happens in Vegas,” “It’s Complicated” and “No Strings Attached” has the opportunity to showcase her triple-threat talent in one of the funniest, smartest and most winning comedies in recent years.

“In a World…” is a reference to the movie trailer catchphrase made famous by the late, great Don LaFontaine, whose “Voice of God” was heard on hundreds of movie trailers and in countless TV ads. (Late in his career, LaFontaine appeared onscreen in those hilarious commercials for GEICO insurance.)

Clips of the real-life LaFontaine introduce us to the, um, world of Hollywood voice-overs, and after we’re told of his passing, “In a World…” goes full fictional, with writer/director Bell delivering a quirky, inside-Hollywood gem that reminded me of Albert Brooks’ classic “Modern Romance,” in which we learned some hilarious truths about the world of film editing on our way to an unforgettable love story.

Here, it’s all about the voice. Bell plays 30-year-old Carol Solomon, a voice coach who specializes in accents. (In one of two spectacular cameos by actors lampooning themselves, Eva Longoria follows Carol around like a puppy in a recording studio, desperate to sound like a pirate.) Carol’s something of an underachieving mess, still living at home with her father, Sam Soto (Fred Melamed), who is recognized by one and all as the king of voice-overs now that LaFontaine has passed.

Sam is a preening blimp who loves the sound of his own voice, loves the younger ladies and loves being a mentor to a cocky, womanizing voice artist named Gustav Warner (Ken Marino). He’s also a chauvinist who believes women have no place in the big leagues of voice-over work, and he seems incapable of providing an encouraging word to Carol or her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins). When Sam’s half-his-age girlfriend moves in, he casually tells Carol she needs to move out, but she can take her time — as long as she’s gone by that evening.

So Carol schleps her meager possessions to the smallish apartment of Dani and her husband Moe (Rob Corddry), one of those rare terrific, all-around good guys in the movies who turn out to be … a terrific, all-around good guy.

In typical stumbling fashion, Carol finds herself in the running for the coveted “In a World…” gig, setting off a series of events that pop and explode like a string of angst-filled firecrackers. The evil Gustav seduces Carol; Sam plots against Carol without knowing it’s Carol he’s plotting against; and Carol harangues Dani into recording the voice inflections of an Irish rogue who is interested in sleeping with Dani.

Meanwhile, it takes Carol a long time to realize (cue the voice-over) that “Sometimes, what you’ve been searching for your whole life — has been right there all along.” In other words, she works with a great guy named Louis (Demetri Martin) who is clearly in love with her.

Bell’s screenplay won the prestigious Waldo Salt Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and with good reason. Even the seeming caricatures, e.g., Sam’s twentysomething girlfriend with the over-the-top Midwestern accent, turn out to be something more than first impressions. There’s also a nice bit of social commentary about the “pandemic” of grown women with baby-talk voices.

Before this movie, Lake Bell seemed to have a nice and comfortable career path ahead of her. She was an actress who always provided a spark, whether the vehicle was mundane or first-rate.

Now, she’s a name that provokes keen anticipation. Can’t wait to see what Lake Bell the filmmaker does next.

Twitter: @richardroeper

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