The curious title of "In a World..." comes from a repeated phrase, the opening words of the voiceover introduction of a series of amazon-warrior films, which the characters refer to as a "quadrilogy." In a sense the whole movie revolves around those words, which come to accumulate more meanings as the story progresses through a relatively predictable comic plot to a cheerfully understated feminist theme.
Lake Bell, who also wrote and directed the picture, plays Carol Solomon, a marginally successful vocal coach who helps actors, including Eva Longoria, who plays herself, with accents and pronunciation. She maintains an audio archive of the useful and interesting pronunciations and inflections she hears, surreptitiously recording Irish, Ukrainian, and Chinese speakers, among others, throughout the film. An expert at imitating those accents, she also works as the voice for radio and television commercials and movie trailers.
Her work provides the unusual context of the picture, an entertaining inside look at the special world of the people who are heard but never seen, the voices in those commercials and trailers. Carol's father, Sam (Fred Melamed), is a successful vocal artist on the brink of retirement, about to receive a lifetime-achievement award from his colleagues; Sam generously relinquishes the opportunity to speak the title phrase to another successful performer, Gustav Wagner (Ken Marino).
When he discovers his daughter is also competing for the chance to become the voice of the trailers and therefore achieve a considerable success herself, Sam decides to rescind his retirement and reenter the race. Gustav resolves to win the contest through a cynical ploy, seducing Carol at a lavish party he hosts, a seduction that begins with one of the weirdest kisses in cinema history.
In addition to the fascinating glimpses of the profession that engages all the characters, a combination of domestic and romantic-comedy occupies the foreground. Carol also deals with her father moving his dizzy young girlfriend Jamie (Alexandra Holden) into his house. She camps out with her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins), who undergoes a domestic crisis of her own, some of it precipitated by Carol's vocal archive.
Amid all the complications and the most authentic presentation of a specialized and intriguing profession, "In a World..." is a quirky, offbeat comedy, with clever, credible, and funny dialogue, convincing characters, and a great deal of charm. The focus on voices and performance aligns the film with all those movies about making movies, only from an entirely new perspective. At its climax the picture also shows the trailers for the wretched "quadrilogy," a short film inside the film, that underlines the peculiar nature of the art.
Aside from the very brief scenes with Eva Longoria and Geena Davis, who delivers an important thematic statement in an oddly cold and dismissive manner, no familiar faces or big names appear in the cast. Refreshingly, all the other actors look like what we think of as real people rather than movie stars, which lends credibility to their characters and their profession. It seems entirely appropriate that the people who work behind the scenes, who actually make the pictures and commercials we all see and, more importantly, hear, should look ordinary rather than glamorous, normal rather than exaggerated, comical without exchanging lines and gags, so that the humor grows naturally out of the characters and the situations.
Apparently a talented and accomplished young woman, Lake Bell sets the tone for both the rest of the cast and the film itself. Naïve and slightly awkward, pretty again in an ordinary way, shy and rather eccentric, she seems exactly right for a part that she herself created. Her producer and romantic counterpart, Louis (Demetri Martin), matches her nicely, sharing some of the same insecurities and neuroses.
Finally, without preaching or propagandizing, "In a World..." delivers an unusual and intelligent statement about empowering women in the industry it displays. Geena Davis, her face artificially tightened like a balloon about to pop, asserts an actual thesis, a most original statement for a quirky romantic comedy.