One of the constantly bemoaned problems in the filmmaking world is how to get more non-white non-men behind the cameras. It's equal parts coincidence and trend, but this week sees two indie comedies written, directed and produced by women.
What's more, they take aim at two sacred cows, one old and one new: The cult of Jane Austen and the pandering garbage that is the Hunger Games phenomenon.
Produced by Stephenie Meyer, a fabulously wealthy Hollywood player thanks to the success of her Twilight books, Austenland has a delicious comic premise: Jane Hayes, an introverted American woman, has been obsessed with Jane Austen since adolescence. Her apartment is a hideously awful shrine to the author, who died in 1817, stuffed with Regency bric-a-brac and capped by a life-size cutout of Colin Firth as he appeared as Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy in the celebrated 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice. Austen-philia is the only thing that gives the film's Jane any happiness; her secretarial job sucks, and her fascination with the charming suitors in the Austen films keeps her lame boyfriends at bay.
One day, she decides to empty her bank account and fly to an English resort called Austenland where tourists can don Jane Austen costumes and live in a Jane Austen world. Jane arrives at the resort—in ludicrous costume, as instructed—and finds herself in a situation that mirrors her real life (she could only afford the lowest tier, for which she is punished with a cramped upstairs bedroom). She is now in a world of make-believe, with a group of actors standing in for the various Austen types: the rakish colonel, the swashbuckling sea captain and the surly-but-secretly-sensitive Darcy-like "Mr. Henry Nobley" (played by JJ Feild).
Jane is played by Keri Russell, lately of The Americans, but who was the lead in Waitress, which was written and directed by Adrienne Shelly, to mention a female directing talent whose life was cut tragically short. Russell wisely plays her part straight, because soon enough she will be joined by a pair of outrageous hams, Jennifer Coolidge and Georgia King. Coolidge, at her most revoltingly pink, plays a gauche American who is given the moniker of "Miss Elizabeth Charming." There's way too much Coolidge in this film—the writing isn't strong enough to support her—but King gives unpredictable line readings and funny walks as a sniping, snobby guest dubbed "Lady Amelia Heartwright".
Directed by Jerusha Hess, Austenland could have been a better film; it mostly settles for broad, broad humor. This film isn't even concerned that it confuses Austeniana with bodice-rippers, not when they can include a shot of Coolidge eyeing the serving men's overstuffed britches. But there are some decent ideas, too, that wouldn't be out of place in contemporary comic fiction: the bitchy backstage world of the Austenland actors, where they preen by the swimming pool, half-naked and half-dressed in costume. And Jane's fleeting romance with a stablehand becomes fraught as she loses her sense of reality and artifice; it's reminiscent of Renoir's The Golden Coach, but really, screenwriter Shannon Hale and director Hess (who co-wrote Napoleon Dynamite) never aim so high. Loud and garish, Austenland only aims to please.
Have you ever sat in a movie theater during the trailers and wondered about the lives of those voice-over artists, the ones with the stentorian, voice-of-God pipes who says things like "In a world... where one man... stands alone"? Well, In a World... is that movie.
It's also a film with a refreshing feminist sensibility from Hollywood's insiders. Written and directed by the intriguing Lake Bell, and starring same, In a World... is a far more ambitious film than Austenland, even if it's hobbled by issues of pacing and underwritten scenes that go nowhere.
Bell plays Carol Solomon, a 30-something underachiever living with her father, who is one of Hollywood's reigning voice-over artists. Carol has a dream (after seeing this movie, everything starts to sound like the voice-over)... so Carol has a dream... to become... the voice of the movies. Only one man... stands in her way. That obstructive man turns out to be not-so-dear old Dad, hilariously played by Fred Melamed (A Serious Man) as a pompous creature who regards his vocal contributions to Hollywood as if he were a cross between Luciano Pavarotti and Orson Welles.
And, to get this movie started, Dad kicks Carol out of the house—for her own good, he says, but also to make room for his new girlfriend (Alexandra Holden), who is Carol's age. Shaken by the dislocation, Carol moves in with sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) and her husband, Moe (Rob Corddry). As she tries to get her voice-over career on track, we see her in the little-known world of workaday Hollywood—the hack editing gigs in home offices, the dubbing and looping production required of even the most abjectly awful movies, the lame parties to be endured for the sake of networking. Carol has an ill-advised encounter with an up-and-coming voice-over star, and fumbles her way through a romance with a nice-guy sound engineer (Demetri Martin), but she never... loses sight... of her dream. Which is to become a rare major female voice-over artist.
Despite the amusing premise, the execution of the film is hit-and-miss, with a few too many hipster comedian friends of the filmmaker tripping through with semi-realized parts. The prevailing comic tone is understatement, with the wry style favored by the likes of Tig Notaro (who's also in the film); although Melamed hams it up as his comically villainous fool , the film could have used a bit more of it—maybe even a Jennifer Coolidge cameo.
Lake Bell, the film's creator, isn't faking her interest in the voice-over industry. Though she's now successful as an on-camera actress (Boston Legal, Black Rock), Bell once dreamed of being a voice-over artist. Her film shows the fruit of those experiences, right down to the punitive sexism and the industry prizes, called the Golden Trailer awards.
In her film's denouement, Bell throws down a feminist gauntlet, side by side with an industry exec played by Geena Davis (who, in real life, is an activist for more female leadership roles in Hollywood). The prize voice-over gig is a "quadrilogy" called, ahem, The Amazon Games (the trailer features an uncredited Cameron Diaz). Speaking in a voice that sounds more like Lake Bell, Carol and Davis do some feminist soapboxing. Davis denounces Amazon Games as "pseudo-feminist fantasy-tween chick-lit bullshit."
Carol, or Bell, follows that with a closing speech to a group of young women that reveals a deeper liberating purpose for voice training.
In a world... ruled by men... one woman... has a mission.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Once upon a time."