Girls on Film: Not every movie with a female lead is a 'romantic comedy'
Lake Bell's In a World... is a comedy, full stop
There is no genre that comes with more stigma than the romantic comedy. Copping to being a rom-com fan is — in the immortal words of Mindy Kaling — "essentially an admission of mild stupidity." Rom-coms are an exercise in unbelievability, showcasing worlds so unlike the one we live in that Kaling ranks the romantic comedy as a "subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world." Some love them, some condemn them, and Hollywood keeps making them.
But what makes a comedy a romantic comedy?
Next week marks the release of Lake Bell's excellent In a World… — and if you don't recognize Bell's name, you probably recognize her face. Though she's never broken into the spotlight, she's been everywhere in Hollywood over the last ten years: Alicia Silverstone's best bud in the short-lived Miss Match, romancing James Spader on Boston Legal, playing doctor on Adult Swim's Children's Hospital, and popping up in smaller roles in films from Adam Goldberg's indie thriller I Love Your Work to Cameron Diaz rom-com What Happens in Vegas. And now, finally, she's broken out of supporting roles to write, produce, direct, and star in one of the summer's best comedies.
But Lake Bell has one final hurdle left to face as In a World... nears release: The "romantic comedy" label, and all the assumptions that come with it. Rotten Tomatoes — and a number of early reviews — describe In a World… as a rom-com. Reviewers aren't necessarily using the label to dismiss the film; it's got a solid amount of buzz pushing it toward release. But it is painting the film with problematic expectations — and all because Carol has a potential love interest in colleague Louis (Demetri Martin).
Don't be fooled — In a World... is about much more than romance. The film follows Carol (Bell), a professionally stunted vocal coach who looks like she only takes fashion advice from 1994's My So-Called Life, with the same plaid baby-doll dresses, overalls, and unnaturally red hair that made Claire Danes' Angela Chase so famous. Unable to make ends meet, she lives with her voiceover veteran father (Fred Melamed) until he kicks her out to make room for his much-too-young new girlfriend. While living on her sister's couch, Carol is presented with the opportunity for a big break: The chance to bring back the breathy "In a world…" trailer voiceover — originally made famous by real-life artist Don LaFontaine — to a new, Hunger Games-esque femme-centric franchise that's the talk of the town. Unfortunately, both her own father and a strange voice-over artist named Gustav (Ken Marino) are fighting her for the job.
With In a World..., Bell is offering a comedy we haven't seen in a long time. It's not a Hollywood farce, relying on increasingly absurd twists and romance that push it into Kaling's sci-fi rom-com territory. Instead, it's a straightforward comedy about work and life told through a slice of the film industry usually ignored in Hollywood movies — the lesser-off players behind the scenes who aren't all delighting in their Malibu pools, encased in their designer threads.
Bell's In a World… is a breath of fresh air because she doesn't use the tropes that so many screenwriters fall into, offering a fully realized lead character who is intelligent and mature while remaining emotionally stunted. Carol doesn't need the many professional men in her life to guide her and help her mature; she does it herself, through interaction and engagement with the outer world once she's pushed into it. When she engages, she does finds romance — but it's only a perk on her ultimate journey to find professional and familial success and clarity.
Describing In a World… as a romantic comedy says much more about critics than the film itself. There is a comfort with labeling female-starring films as "romantic," as if the two are inextricably hand-in-hand — but if the film is male-centric, we tend not to include the dreaded "rom" prefix. Films like Wedding Crashers and Sideways are male-centric stories that are fueled by romance and weddings, but they tend to be described as "comedies" without the extra signifier. Last year's Moonrise Kingdom, which is entirely about a romance between two young kids, was labeled a "comedy"— or, in a transparent effort to lessen the blow of romance, a "romantic comedy-drama."
Each of those films is much more romantic than Bell's comedy, but only In a World… gets the front-and-center label, skewing perception before it even hits screens. It's more than inaccurate; it's a danger to the film's potential success at the box-office. In a World... is already opening in limited release, which means it will require solid word-of-mouth to be successful. In a world where the masses hate rom-coms, it's an added hurdle to leap.
It shouldn't be. In a World… is funny and refreshing. It's sarcastic, unexpected, and enjoyably real — a film that shows the struggle against sexism as something to overcome without getting on a soapbox. (As Bell told NPR, she wants "just a little suds on ya to get the message across.") In a World... cleverly lays out its own unique message: That while we all live with an omniscient male voice guiding us through trailers and commercials, anyone can find strength in their voice (even the girls suffering from what Bell calls "sexy baby vocal virus.")
Don't be fooled. There are women in this film who flirt, date, and have sex. But In a World... is not a romantic comedy. It's simply the story of one talented woman who knows how to use her voice — and now, finally, has the chance to have it heard.