A deftly wielded love of words ★★★ 1/2

Lake Bell juggles all the balls, with zingers to boot

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The actress Lake Bell has spent a lot of her screen career in movies such as "What Happens in Vegas" and "No Strings Attached" being better, funnier and truer in semi-disposable supporting roles than the leading players she supported. Then she made a couple of extremely promising short films.

And voila: Bell's debut feature is pretty terrific.

Like all good comedies, "In a World…" fleshes out a subculture full of peculiar rules and people. We're inside the voice-over acting community of Los Angeles, full of big egos and deliciously elongated vowel sounds. Carol (Bell) is one of two daughters of Sam (Fred Melamed); she has talent as a vocal coach, and as a voice-over artist, but the male domination of the market has kept her out of the money for too long. Sam, worse luck, is one of the greats, due for his lifetime achievement award. The license plate on his sports car reads: ANUNC8.

Word gets out that a "Hunger Games"-style epic franchise is about to resurrect the legendary "In a world …" ad copy made famous by the greatest voice-over of 'em all, Don LaFontaine. Bell's script sets up this premise as a competition among a tightly intertwined group, chiefly: Carol; her dad; and her dad's protege (Ken Marino). Demetri Martin plays the sound mixer smitten with our heroine. The movie keeps dozens of balls in the air, deftly, with everyone attuned to the unique, beboppy rhythm of Bell's own vocal delivery.

Michaela Watkins plays Dani, a hotel concierge and Carol's married sister; Rob Corddry, the best he's ever been on screen, is the husband whose trust is sorely tested by Dani's attraction to a visiting Irishman staying where Dani works. This plotline dovetails nicely with the other narrative developments in a way that suggests Bell has learned a few things while shooting far-inferior stuff on the order of "What Happens in Vegas." That film's star, Cameron Diaz, shows up here for a cameo as the star of the Amazonian epic, a tiny (and funny) bit of which is shown at the movie's climax.

Does "In a World…" wield a message? Yes. It reminds us, wittily, that there are many voices in the world, and there should be just as many in the movies, and in the ridiculous, cliched, rousing movie trailers we all love to hate and occasionally love to love. Bell writes as well as she acts.

As a director she may have a few things to learn about varying her pacing and making the camera a dynamic partner in the storytelling. But this is a wholly satisfying picture nonetheless, charmingly obsessive about its chosen subject. The way Bell's character zings one of the aggravating Valley-speak female denizens she meets on the street is brutal yet, in its way, humane. Bell really does care about the way women talk, and the way the culture encourages their infantilization and what the script calls "sexy-baby" intonations.

Bell makes her points inside the story, not in place of it. And she writes dialogue that, by any actor's standard, is simply fun to deliver. Sample punch line, delivered by Martin, explaining why he doesn't like going to voice-over industry cocktail parties: "I'm tired of waiting for the bathroom and hearing the voice of Cialis hitting on the Virgin America message hold girl."


"In a World…" - 3 1/2 stars

MPAA rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

Running time: 1:32

Opens: Friday

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