Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 20, 2014)
Recently I checked out Don Jon, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s debut as writer/director. Not to be outdone, fellow actor Lake Bell makes the leap to writer/director with In a World…, a character comedy connected to the realm of voice-over performers.
Carol (Bell) struggles to make a career as a vocal coach, and she butts heads with her father Sam (Fred Melamed), one of the most successful voice-over actors. After the death of the legendary Don LaFontaine, someone needs to pick up the slack, and Sam plans to promote his protégé Gustav (Ken Marino).
Of course, this upsets Carol, as she hopes to get into the field instead. We watch Carol’s family issues as well as her attempts to make a name for herself and a encounters various romantic complications.
Going into Don Jon, I worried that it’d be little more than an indulgent attempt at cinematic self-glorification, and the same concerns greeted World. It’s daunting enough when an actor leaps to director, but when that performer decides to film his/her own screenplay, the potential for self-absorbed nonsense zooms.
Gordon-Levitt impressed me with his debut, but I feel less enamored with Bell’s work in World. Not that I want to indicate strong displeasure with the film, as it musters some entertainment; it just can't keep us with it the whole way, as it sputters well before it ends.
World often feels more like a concept than a story even though it attempts to pour on a bunch of narrative elements. We get Carol’s issues with her dad, Carol’s problems with her dad’s much younger girlfriend, Carol’s relationship with Louis (Demetri Martin), her competition with Gustav, additional love interests there, and complications in her sister Dani’s (Michaela Watkins) marriage to Moe (Rob Corddry).
And that doesn’t even sum up everything! Suffice it to say that Bell spreads the story too thin, especially given the movie’s fairly brief 93-minute running time. If World focused more tightly on just a few of these components, it might be able to flesh them out for a more consistent tale, but it flits all over the place that it collapses under the weight of its ADHD tendencies.
Perhaps Bell worried that if she concentrated on Carol, World would look like a vanity effort so she decided to share the wealth. Or maybe she just has a lot of friends who she wanted to see get good screen time and this becomes the result.
Whatever the root, World comes burdened with too many extraneous scenes and elements. Is there any reason whatsoever that we need the storyline about the marital issues between Dani and Moe? Nope, and that thread works particularly poorly due to the simplistic manner in which the flick depicts it. The film seems to want to focus on the strained relationship between Carol and Sam, so the shift to the supporting roles makes little sense.
I can understand Carol’s romantic adventures a bit better, but even those feel artificial and forced. In a weird way, the movie seems to be a reverse Jazz Singer; instead of a father upset his child doesn’t follow in his footsteps, Sam becomes bothered Carol tries to take his career path.
What do Carol’s romances have to do with this? Not much. Some twists threaten to have an impact, but these quickly disappear.
The more I think about it, the more I really do start to think Bell wrote the script as an excuse to feature a lot of her friends. The movie’s so bizarrely egalitarian that I find it tough to explain the lack of character focus any other way. World never really commits to a truly broad ensemble orientation, but it skitters about too much to be as focused on its lead as it should be.
Still, Bell does have a talented collection of friends, and they add charm to the proceedings. At times the movie feels like a bunch of audition scenes, as if those involved hoped to add their segments to reels they could send to casting directors, but they still give the film some zest and fun.
It’s not quite enough to redeem World, however. The movie starts out reasonably well and entertains for a while, but it becomes more and more sidetracked as it goes. With a tighter focus, this could’ve been a pretty good movie; as constituted, it’s a sporadically enjoyable mess.