I complain fairly often in this space about the slow decline of middlebrow entertainment — the way superheroes and franchises have crowded out original storytelling, the way the economics of the blockbuster has made it hard to get even a medium-budget movie off the ground, the way it’s difficult to imagine today’s Hollywood greenlighting many of the classics of my childhood and teenage years. (“Wait, you’re saying he just learns karate from some old guy and then goes on to win a tournament? That’ll never justify our marketing budget! Why can’t we make him a karate superhero instead?”)
These are familiar complaints to anyone who follows the film-industry conversation, and so it’s always good to have a glass-half-full response; and recently the optimist’s case was supplied by my comrade in right-of-center movie criticism, the Washington Free Beacon’s Sonny Bunch. He argued that, thanks to technological advances that make it easier than ever to shoot and edit, and distribution channels such as Netflix and Amazon that make it easier to catch up with obscure titles in your living room, the decline of the $40 million movie may actually end up ushering in “a golden age of small-budget cinema,” thick with interesting small movies made “at $5 million a crack.”
I won’t say that I was persuaded by Bunch’s argument, in part because I haven’t liked any of the recent small-budget titles (The Bling Ring and Only God Forgives, among others) that his mini-essay mentioned.
But his thesis crept back into my mind while I was watching In a World . . ., which stars Lake Bell and also marks her eccentric, entertaining directorial debut. Bell is an actress you might recognize: She’s played supporting roles in a few middling romantic comedies (It’s Complicated, What Happens in Vegas, and the like) and showed up as a guest star on several sitcoms. In those parts, she’s struck me as the kind of female performer — unconventionally pretty, well suited to comedy, not a bombshell or an athlete — who doesn’t have much of a chance in today’s big-screen landscape, and whose career tends to dead-end in gal-pal roles unless she leaps to television or catches an extremely lucky break. (The always-better-than-her-material Judy Greer is an example of this type; so is Amy Acker, the star of Joss Whedon’s recent shot-on-the-cheap Much Ado About Nothing.)
Apparently Bell felt much the same way about her own likely trajectory, because she cobbled together the money to make a comedy whose story, set in the obscure corner of Hollywood where the men who do voice-overs on movie trailers are treated as royalty, doubles as a protest against the priorities of the industry as a whole.
#page#She stars as Carol, the underachieving, dorky, semi-hapless daughter of a sonorous, self-satisfied, chauvinist voice-over legend (Fred Melamed). He’s awaiting his lifetime-achievement award; she’s still living in his spare bedroom, making ends meet by teaching movie stars how to do a Cockney accent. Or rather, she’s living there until he decides that it’s time for his twentysomething girlfriend to move in, at which point she decamps for the apartment shared by her sister (Michaela Watkins) and her husband (Rob Corddry), becoming a third wheel in a marriage that’s about to hit a rough patch.
From this low point, though, Carol finds a way to rise. First, she swipes a voice gig out from under her father’s heir apparent, Gustav (Ken Marino), a preening pretty boy with pipes. Then, with the help of an audio technician (Demetri Martin) whose devotion is apparent to everyone save her, she manages to put herself in the running for the trailer voice-over for Hollywood’s latest mega-budget tentpole, The Amazon Games, whose producers have decided to resurrect the classic trailer opening line: “In a world . . .”
This setup lets the movie take swipes at Hollywood gender bias (“The industry does not crave a female sound,” Carol’s dad lectures her), the emptiness of blockbusters (what we see of The Amazon Games looks like The Hunger Games crossed with Clan of the Cave Bear and then rewritten by a six-year-old), and even the “sexy baby” voice that so many Southern California women seem to cultivate.
But there’s much more to In a World . . . than a series of industry-related barbs. Too much more, sometimes: The movie is a little overplotted (too much time is spent on the sister and her marriage problems) and Bell has assembled a great cast without always giving them great characters to play. Nick Offerman, so great as Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation, is wasted in a supporting part that never really brings the laughs, and the script as a whole is always about 20 percent less funny than it thinks it is.
Which is to say that this might have been a slightly better movie with, yes, a somewhat bigger budget and the extra cooks in the kitchen that studio money buys — with someone punching up the script, someone giving notes and feedback, someone worrying a little more about what audiences would think, and so on.
But then again it might have been worse — and anyway it’s an academic question, since a movie like this, with these stars and this story, would simply never have been made at even a slightly higher budget.
The fact that it did get made, in defiance of Hollywood’s priorities, is not necessarily a sign that small-budget movies are ready to fill the void left by the collapse of the middlebrow. But it is a reason to be glad that such movies exist, and to root for them to prosper.