Cedar Rapids (United States, 2011)February 11, 2011
Cedar Rapids is a quirky comedy that crossbreeds two common cinematic staples: the mismatched buddy movie and the fish-out-of-water scenario. With elements culled from the mainstream smash The Hangover and the indie cult favorite Napoleon Dynamite, Cedar Rapids is nothing if not versatile. And, although perhaps not as funny as one might expect given the setup, it successfully grows the main characters beyond their stereotype roots. As is the case with almost every effective comedy, this one works because the protagonist becomes more than a walking punch line.
Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) represents a familiar type - the socially awkward guy who radiates earnestness and falls in love with any woman willing to sleep with him (even if she was once his junior high school teacher). The differences between Tim and Hollywood's typical cinematic geek are apparent - Tim is not a teenager living in his parents' basement and he doesn't appear to have any interest in science fiction or comic books. It goes to show that there's more than one kind of nerd in the world and if you watch enough movies, you'll encounter every one of them.
Tim is an insurance salesman from Brown Valley, Wisconsin but, unlike 99% of his fellows, his motives are pure. He's a good guy - too good for a profession populated by sharks. His boss, an oily sleazebag named Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root), sends Tim to a convention in Cedar Rapids to capture a prestigious award for the company. For Tim, who has led an isolated, parochial life, Cedar Rapids is like Vegas. He is awed by the generic hotel's amenities. His roommates are a hard working, straight shooter, Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and a foulmouthed cynic, Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly). He develops romantic feelings for two women - Joan (Anne Heche) and Bree (Alia Shawkat) - but one is married and the other is a prostitute. Plus there's the added complication of the teacher (Sigourney Weaver) back home, with whom he describes his relationship as a "pre-engagement." Everything changes when teetotaler Tim imbibes a little, and they change even more when he does a line or two.
The humor in Cedar Rapids is hit-or-miss, but there are more hits than misses. There are instances in which the filmmakers appear to be trying too hard to capture the Hangover vibe and some of the outrageous jokes are as likely to provoke chuckles as guffaws. That said, I laughed hard a few times and smiled many more. The film's strength lies in character interaction. It's not superlative, but it is effective. The bonding between Tim and Dean, two polar opposites, is predictable but it's handled by actors who play it seriously, so we care about these two. Joan and Ronald make for nice secondary characters and their relationships with Tim add variety to the mix. The fish out of water acclimates with surprising alacrity to his new surroundings, helped along by a few shots of cream sherry.
The acting has more than a little to do with the production's offbeat likeability, since the viewer's affinity for the movie is directly related to his/her willingness to root for the characters. Ed Helms, taking a break from The Office, channels his fellow sitcom cast-mate Steve Carrell from The 40-Year-Old Virgin here, and comes up with a similar character. It takes a while for a genuine personality to unfold from the bald-faced stereotype but, when it does, it becomes hard not to like Tim, who is played with dignity; the movie laughs at him but does so gently and with affection. Dean doesn't showcase John C. Reilly at his best. This isn't a challenge for the versatile character actor, but at least he isn't on auto-pilot and Cedar Rapids doesn't recall some of his embarrassing comedic missteps in recent years. Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Anne Heche are strong in supporting roles. Heche, whose career has been in a downward spiral following her paparazzi flirtation, gives the best performance in Cedar Rapids.
With Cedar Rapids, director Miguel Arteta has taken a step back from Youth in Revolt toward The Good Girl, although the tone is closer to the former than the latter. There's an element of irreverence, but it's not so overpowering that the sweetness is lost. I enjoyed the film as much as I have enjoyed anything in this new year and, while some might argue that's damning with faint praise, I would as readily recommend the movie in November as in February.
Cedar Rapids (United States, 2011)
Cast: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Stephen Root, Kurtwood Smith, Alia Shawkat, Sigourney Weaver
Screenplay: Phil Johnson
Cinematography: Chuy Chavez
Music: Christophe Beck
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight