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Cedar Rapids (2011)

February 11, 2011

written by: Phil Johnston
produced by: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, & Ed Helms
directed by: Miguel Arteta
rated R (for crude and sexual content, language and drug use)
86 min.
U.S. release date: February 11, 2011 (limited)
I got so excited about the last truly great comedy I saw that I included it on my Top Ten Films of 2010 list!  Which got me to thinking….why is a great comedy so hard to come by nowadays? It could be because everything is getting recycled and revamped, catering to a lowbrow mentality that results in a movie with no head or heart. I’m all for hilarious hijinks now and then but the best comedies are ones in which we can relate to the characters (or at least find them relatively familiar) or the situations they are in. Not all these characters may be intentionally funny, but somehow that comes through in their behavior or their quirks, but especially in the decisions they make and how they deal with them.
Such is the case with the new film by Miguel Arteta (“Chuck and Buck” & “Youth in Revolt”), who provides us with a story inhabited by a wide range of “average” people.  In a refreshing dose of realism, none of these characters are standout as exemplary nor are they visual knockouts, like so many of us, they just are. Yet the more time we spend with them, they grow on us in an unexpected way, gleaning a warm tenderness out of what first comes across as pathetic, normal, and obnoxious. 
Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) has lived in the small town of Brown Valley, Wisconsin all his life. You know the kind, where everyone knows everyone else’s business and small businesses are run by good people you can trust. As the number two salesman at Brown Star Insurance, a small company that upholds Christian values, Lippe (pronounced “lippy”), has made a name for himself as that dependable guy with a great work ethic, who will always be number two.  That’s how this fortysomething rube, who lives in the same home he grew up in (even the bedroom is stuck in boyhood), views himself. The highlight in his life is his weekly fling with his Ms. Vanderhai (a saucy Sigourney Weaver), his former seventh-grade school teacher. 
Tim may not have many aspirations beyond providing the best insurance possible, but he seems no less content. Either way, life for Tim is about to drastically change when a celebrated co-worker, Roger Lemke (Thomas Lennon) suddenly dies. This results in Tim’s boss (Stephen Root) bestowing upon Tim a highly coveted honor. He is to attend an important annual insurance conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with one goal in mind: secure the Two Diamonds award, an award Lemke has gone home with each year for Brown Star.
It’s bad enough to have that kind of pressure, on top of the stress of traveling for the first time ever. In fact, one gets the idea that there are several “first times” awaiting Tim. The guy has never flown in a plane (which makes going through security in his little airport an act of wonder), he’s never stayed in a hotel (therefore, even the average lodging where the convention is held seems like a palace), nor has he ever come across a prostitute. Which makes for some innocently awkward interactions with a young woman (Alia Shawkat) entertaining gentlemen at the hotel. So, it’s obvious why the corporate drama takes a backseat to the  better-late-than-never coming of age real story.
Like all such stories of this nature, there needs to be some supporting characters to help (or challenge) our protagonist along the way.  Due to hotel over-booking, we find such characters in his roommates, two very different insurance vets. There’s the level-headed, Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr. making a hilarious reference to his time on HBO’s “The Wire”) and the wild and brash Dean “The Deanzie” Ziegler (John C. Reilly, giving some quirky depth to his usual craziness). With the addition of the confidant agent Joan (Anne Heche, surprisingly offering a fresh complexity), Tim soon finds himself a part of an unlikely fantastic foursome. Through situations that range from over-the-top silliness to genuinely tender, Tim learns to untuck his shirt a little and stand up for himself amid a foreign environment.
Wisconsin native Phil Johnson has written a screenplay that is filled with characters and situations  assumingly based on real life. At least they felt that way to me and anyone from the Midwest who’s been to these kind of conventions should agree. What makes it all the more convincing is the excellent ensemble cast (withe reliable assists from Kurtwood Smith and Rob Corddry) Arteta works with. Their is dead-on portrayal of random small town Midwesterners is at borderline caricature but they nevertheless won me over. If you’re the least bit familiar with the four main actors, you’ll find yourself pleased at just how weird, funny and enjoyable their characters are as the movie progresses.
I couldn’t quite place what hit me in all the right ways about this movie, until I noticed the production team involved. It’s uncertain what part they played, but the tone and style of Jim Burke, Jim Taylor, and Alexander Payne (“Election”, “About Schmidt” and “Sideways”) is ever-present and identifiable. They know how to balance odd and quirky with a spit-take hilarity just right. Like those other films, one of the attractions of  “Cedar Rapids” is seeing such flawed and nuanced roles come to life on-screen. At times, Helms does play up the persona that everyone is familiar with, but throughout the majority of the film we see a naive and likable good guy who unexpectedly finds himself.
Leaving “Cedar Rapids” is kind of like leaving time spent with some newly made friends. You want the best for them and you want to tell others about them as well. The sometimes crude humor may not be for everyone, but at least it never really feels mean-spirited or outrageous, like so many comedies. I’ll award an extra Two Diamonds award worth of praise just for that.
RATING: ***1/2
6 Comments leave one →
  1. Tairy Greene permalink
    February 14, 2011 5:23 pm

    I loved Ed Helms in The Hangover–he has a great ability and range (he is good at listening and responding to his costars , for example).

    Can’t wait to check it out!


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