IN A WORLD…



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In a World… is a perfectly pleasant little movie.  It’s also more than a bit of a frumpy mess. 
Written and directed and starring Lake Bell (known mainly for her comedic work on such shows as Children’s Hospital), In A World…, at it’s core, is the story of a young female voiceover artist who wants to break through the glass ceiling of the male dominated movie trailer world and the effect that goal has on her strained relationship with her father when the two end up in competition against each other for a prestigious gig—the chance to be the one to bring back the iconic “in a world where…” opening to sneak previews.
The basis of the movie is sound.  And there’s no reason why it couldn’t have been made into something.  But in the end, for me it is a movie that feels as if its main positive is that it just got made at all.  It feels unambitious and willing to settle, a bit too slackerly for my taste, especially when you imagine what it could have been.  It’s one of those films that feels as if it did as little as possible just to get that C grade.
The whole thing gets off to a shaky start with Bell playing Carol, one of those annoying characters who’s exasperated and totally perplexed because the world doesn’t revolve around her and she’s not the center of attention.  As the movie goes on, her personality becomes more infectious and one does eventually warm to her (Bell may come across as underwhelming in the writing/directing department, but she works her tail off in the acting arena).
But the movie as a whole never quite comes together.  Half of it deals with Carol and the voiceover competition, while the other half, for some reason, deals with the marital difficulties of Carol’s sister and brother-in-law (the excellent Michaela Watkins and Rob Corddry).  But this plot turn is so irrelevant, all it really does is take precious time away from the core of the drama.  The result is a subplot that feels as if it’s only included because Bell, as a writer, couldn’t quite figure out how to fully dramatize the father/daughter voiceover conflict, and so had to have some sort of filler to make sure the movie came out to a commercial length, leaving the main through line sketched in and woefully underwritten.
What also doesn’t help is that the sister/brother-in-law conflict is tighter, more focused and better written than the rest of the movie with the most fully developed characters.  The remainder of the roles, except for Bell, never rise above the level of a cartoon, including Fred Melamed, as the father, and the sly Ken Marino, as douchebaggy Gustav, Bell’s only other rival for the prized gig.  What also, also doesn’t help is that this subplot is the most unoriginal part of the proceedings. 
I really would have loved a fully realize comedic dramatization of this fight to be crowned king, or queen, of voiceover movie trailer artists.  But instead, and I hate to say it, there’s something off balance and clumsy about the whole movie.  Bell is very sincere and her personality carries the movie along for much of it, but in the end, the film just made me think of that old sit-com routine where the wife keeps begging her husband to let her call in a repairman to fix something, but the husband insists on doing it himself, with the result that he only makes things worse until one wishes that the repairman had been called in in the first place.
Toward the end there’s a scene that perhaps encapsulates much of the issues I had with the movie overall.  In it, Geena Davis, as a producer, cruelly puts Carol in her place over the issue as to whether she really was the best person for the voiceover gig.  It’s odd because there’s absolutely no reason shown for the producer to be so arbitrarily mean spirited.  It also introduces a concept, the idea of being the best for a job, that is passed over like a hit and run accident.  Like so much of the movie, it’s underwritten and feels like a scene that could have been, rather than was.

ON BORROWED TIME: Reviews of The Art of the Steal and Hot Tub Time Machine


The Art of the Steal is a documentary by Don Argot revolving around the battle over ownership, or stewardship, of the art collection located at the Barnes Museum in Merion, PA., a suburb outside of Philadelphia (in an odd reversal of good cop/bad cop, the sophisticated, more worldly city folk are the villains here, while the conservative, Babbity suburbanites are cast in the role of the last bastions of purity in art; who knew?). The documentary is very detailed in explaining the history of this conflict; one almost sat terrified, wondering whether certain scenes were going to be on the test. But when all was said and done, I think the friend I went with summed it up best when he said it all seemed something like a tempest in a teapot. The conflict actually began in 1926 when Albert C. Barnes presented his valuable art collection of impressionist and other artwork to the Philadelphia public. To say the media of the time, especially the Philadelphia Inquirer, reacted to the exhibit with disdain is an understatement. Barnes was excoriated for his taste and his collection ridiculed. In a huff (or to quote Groucho Marx, a minute and a huff), he took his baseball and went home by building a museum/school in Merion and housed his artwork there, forbidding anybody that smelled of culture, any critic, anyone who made too much money, to see it. This part of the film was delicious fun. What artist or producer wouldn’t love to tell critics and others of that ilk to go screw themselves and get away with it? Oh, sweet revenge, how beautiful is thy sting. And this was fine as long as Barnes was alive. But while art may live forever, people do not and Barnes died in the 1950’s and the museum was passed from person to person, none of whom unfortunately could keep it going without violating stipulations of Barnes’s will. The last straw was Richard Glanton who toured the exhibit and opened it to the public, thus saving the Barnes by making enough money to remodel the building with enough moolah left over to take care of the place until the second coming. But that money went the way of the wind over a stupid lawsuit when the locals, who were tired of the crowds coming to the Barnes, fought against adding adequate public parking and Glanton accused them of racism. Once this happened, the time became ripe for the forces of evil (the city of Philadelphia) to sweep in and take the exhibits as their own. The critics of this move claim that people behind the move were Philistines who don’t care about art, only commerce. That may very well be true. But the alternative was housing the collection in a location that was not self sustaining with leadership that couldn’t keep it going in an area where nobody really wanted it until it was being taken away from them. Much has been made of how one-sided the argument in the movie is and that Argot failed to give the devil (the cultural elite in Philadelphia) its due. What I think is even more pertinent is that in spite of Argot not giving a balanced reporting of the situation, he still couldn’t persuade me the defenders of the Barnes were in the right. The good guys want to suggest this is a David and Goliath story when in reality it’s a Goliath and Goliath story. The supporters of the Barnes may want to paint themselves as the true inheritors of this eccentric collector’s philosophy on art, but in reality, this philosophy is not really based on the best way to display the art, it’s based on someone who got himself into a fit of pique over a bad review. Nearly one hundred years have passed since that review and it’s hard for me to want to base a plan of action on that anymore.

Hot Tub Time Machine (a title that should probably win the truth in advertising award because, yeah, that’s pretty much what the movie is about) is also concerned with present day events being influenced by something that happened in the past. Three middle aged Peter Pans are going through a mid-life crisis (a seeming contradiction in terms, but still, there you have it). The two played by John Cusack (he of the burnt out hang dog look) and Craig Robinson take the suicidal third, played by Rob Corddry, to a ski resort that was the scene of their last great year. Also along for the reluctant ride is Clark Duke, Cusack’s nephew. The resort is now run down (like the three men), but they make the best of it. When their broken down, dead rat infested hot tub is magically restored by a mysterious man who appears and disappears for no apparent logic (played for some odd reason by Chevy Chase; not quite as iconic a choice as Don Knotts in Pleasentville) and the men accidentally spill a Russian energy drink on the electric work, they are transported back to that seminal night in the 1980’s when Michael Jackson was black (if you’ve seen the preview, you get the joke) and the guys made all those wrong decisions that brought them to their sorry state of existence. In the end, the movie, written by Josh Heald, Sean Anders, and John Morris is what would be called good, goofy fun, not great, but better (or at least as good as) The Hangover. The structure is clunky; it can’t seem to make up its mind as to how the hot tub became a time machine and what part Chevy Chase’s character had in it. Too much of the humor is dependent on homophobia and a fear of strong women (you know the Robinsons’ character is pussy whipped because he took his wife’s name—only a man without testicles would ever think of doing such a ghastly thing). And the whole outcome is based on the fantasy that if we had only taken that other road that diverged in the wood our lives would have been ideal, rather than just different (as Robert Frost’s poem actually suggests). Okay, so it’s no Back to the Future or It’s a Wonderful Life, but then what is? As a guilty pleasure, one could do far worse.