It is said that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king—and when it comes to American movies, the land of the blind is the Sundance Film Festival. Every January, independent filmmakers looking for distributors fight to get their films shown at the festival in Utah. Followers of cinema news are bombarded with reports of the Sundance attendees responding with standing ovations to this film or that film, only to find that when the movie is released months later, it’s just, as the young people say these days, meh.
The latest such meh-sterpiece is In a World..., a movie written and directed by its fetching star, Lake Bell. She won best screenplay for it at Sundance, where it was received “jubilantly,” according to Deadline.com.
In the film, Carol Solomon (Bell) makes an uncertain living as a voice coach in Los Angeles. She wanders around town recording weird accents so she can learn to duplicate them. Carol is the daughter of the reigning star of the voice-over business, an aged popinjay wonderfully played by Fred Melamed.
The movie begins when her father kicks Carol out of his house so he can shack up with a seemingly airheaded girlfriend younger than his own kids. One day, at the studio where she helps actors with their accents, Carol offhandedly records a voice-over herself. It’s a business dominated by men with plummy voices, so her work is something new, and she begins to make a career of it as well.
This is all reasonably interesting, as is the stutter-step romance between Carol and the incredibly hesitant manager of the recording studio (Demetri Martin). Less good and less new are the plot developments centered around the recording of a big, new trailer and a wildly overserious subplot about the conjugal dissatisfaction of Carol’s sister, an unpleasant hotel concierge married to a lovely guy (Rob Corddry).
In the end, In a World... is okay. I’ve seen better, I’ve seen worse—and that’s only this week. So why did everybody in Utah go crazy for it?
Because it was the one-eyed man this year at Sundance. At film festivals, people watch four or five movies a day, and so many of them (most of which will never see the light of day) are so unimaginably wretched that anything even minimally competent or involving seems like Shakespeare. The same sense of overload clearly affected the market atmosphere at Sundance, where In a World... sparked a bidding war between distributors who battled each other for the multimillion-dollar rights to put it out into the marketplace.
The businessmen at Sundance are all panning for gold. Over the past quarter-century, Sundance has been the source of instant wealth and fame as small movies came out of nowhere and scored not only critical plaudits but huge box office numbers—from Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) to The Blair Witch Project (1999) to Napoleon Dynamite (2004) to Little Miss Sunshine (2006).
But, as is the case with all gold rushes, some people begin to fantasize that there are riches trapped in a lump of coal. Ludicrous deals are struck every year. A horrible and drippy thing called The Spitfire Grill launched a feeding frenzy in 1996 and was eventually bought for $10 million, all of which was lost when the public got a chance to see it. The same happened with a dreadful comedy called Hamlet 2 in 2008. These movies failed not only because they were bad, but because they were marketed as something special when they really were not.
The point here is that hype is not just a problem for studio block-busters whose marketing divisions make you sick and tired of such movies long before they ever get to your local theater. A comparable sort of weariness can set in among those for whom movie-going really is an ingrained cultural habit—the very people who go to the art houses and smaller theaters that are the natural homes for Sundance movies—when modest fare is overpraised and oversold. After all, a one-eyed man still only has one eye.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.