REVIEW: Cedar Rapids [2011]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 87 minutes | Release Date: February 11th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director(s): Miguel Arteta
Writer(s): Phil Johnston

“You’re what I like to call a Richard. A Richard Head.”

On paper, Cedar Rapids seems an odd choice for a Sundance Selection. With a star in Ed Helms at the center, a man enjoying continued success on “The Office” and breaking out in The Hangover, you think overdone Hollywood vehicle to cash in on some timely exposure. Just look at that poster with his too wide grin and airplane pillow that doubles for a life preserver on quick glance next to the title. But then you go deeper and see a first time feature writer in Phil Johnston and indie stalwart Miguel Arteta behind the camera. I actually had similar feeling towards his Youth in Revolt a couple years back, only to be pleasantly surprised at its ability to overcome it’s assumed limitations. Cedar Rapids does the same, never focusing too long on Helms’s typecast naivety and also never allowing the eccentric cast around him to overshadow the innocent heart about to be manhandled to oblivion. Throw in Arteta regular John C. Reilly—if you haven’t seen their short film Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody?, see it now—with a ceaseless dispensing of quality one-liners and you’ve got laughs big enough to drown out the next line reading.

The start is slow; so prepare to get a bit frustrated with the activities in Brown Valley. Helms plays Tim Lippe, a simple man with a child-like sensibility and wide-eyed optimism. He loves his job—he became an insurance salesman because he saw how they could be heroes; idolizes his co-worker Roger (Thomas Lennon) for winning the coveted Two Diamond Award for top quality, customer service, and love of God for three years in a row; and has decided to pre-propose to his girlfriend, Sigourney Weaver’s Macy, his old Middle School teacher. It is really cheesy because the town itself is satirical in its church-faring love of mankind masking humanity’s true ulterior motives, but even more so since Lippe is its most dedicated sheep, and treated like an untainted child to sin by those around him. When the cards fall and his boss Bill (Stephen Root) asks him to fill in at the Cedar Rapids tradeshow, going for a fourth Two Diamond, you can sense the fish-out-of-water gags to come. Small town guy thrust into the insurance world’s Vegas? Temptation is the devil, but the devil may be just what Tim Lippe needs.

And now the pace picks up, mostly because Reilly’s Dean Ziegler arrives in all his brash, obnoxiousness. This is the one person Bill told Tim to avoid at all costs. Labeled a poacher and the kind of man that will ruin all sanctity in a race where God holds weight, we assume we’ll need to hate him, make him the villain. But it’s not that easy. Roommate Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), hand-picked to steward Tim through the weekend’s activities for his boss, appears to have a love/hate relationship with Dean, moreso on the love side. As far as people who see each other once a year go, the two are friends. And this confuses Tim, unable to figure out everyone’s motivations—not a hard thing to fathom since he thinks Brie (Alia Shawkat), the prostitute outside the hotel, is merely a sweet young girl chatting up visitors. Lippe isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer by any stretch of the imagination; he can’t even understand his ‘girlfriend’s’ disinterest in anything more than an affair when she ends each phone conversation by saying she has a date. Tim needs Ronald, Dean, and the beautiful Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche) to show him what it means to live.

Granted, ‘living’ ends up being late night drunken swimming in underwear, having fun in a Two Diamond scavenger hunt, and partaking in a talent show featuring some tap-dancing from Mike O’Malley. But the lame quality of what becomes fun is part of Cedar Rapids’ charm, and a necessity to keep Reilly’s crudely lewd behavior a reprieve to the pretend chastity of the rest. This bunch of churchgoing salesmen aren’t as squeaky clean as Tim assumes, but when is a churchgoing hoard ever more than a clan of hypocrites? Soon we’ll find out that he’s just as bad, or maybe worse, as debauchery rubs off and a steady stream of cream sherry takes hold of his usual buttoned-down persona. Things start to get crazy and raunchiness seeps in—in a tame, good way with a locker room scene with Kurtwood Smith being the only ‘gross-out’ moment. The underbelly of the insurance world is exposed and Tim Lippe becomes both the hero and villain. Breaking from his shell brings alcohol, sex, and a lot of drugs, but while God watches and laughs with us, the whole endeavor does become a test to get him back to who he wants to be.

If you like Helms, you’ll love him here. I wouldn’t be surprised if the role was specifically written for him. He has a loudmouth, judgmental quality when pushed too far, he does naivety way too well, and the filmmakers even let him flex the pipes with a song. His posse also couldn’t be better: Whitlock Jr.—Clay Davis from “The Wire”—is fantastically cast against type from that character. He’s compassionate, tells the corniest jokes with a smile that begs for a laugh, and the meta-ness of his “Wire” love and Omar impressions is hilarious, especially if you’re familiar with the show. Heche is the rock—a successful woman, happily married with children, and as much a member of this boy’s club as the rest. What happens between she and Helms is a big part of his evolution and she makes her adulteress sympathetic and forgiving. And that leaves Reilly, the one-man laugh machine getting all the good lines. His delivery is spot-on as his mannerisms balance the line of blow-hard jerk, blow-hard buffoon, and blow-hard friend perfectly. But while he steals the show, it’s the ensemble that sticks with you. I wouldn’t mind joining them for next year’s conference, too.

[1] Anne Heche stars as Joan Ostrowski-Fox and Ed Helms stars as Tim Lippe in Fox Searchlight Pictures’ Cedar Rapids (2011)
[2] Ed Helms and Isiah Whitlock Jr. in CEDAR RAPIDS Photo Credit: Zade Rosenthal TM and © 2010 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp
[3] Clockwise from top left: John C. Reilly, Ed Helms, Isiah Whitlock Jr., & Anne Heche in CEDAR RAPIDS Photo Credit: Zade Rosenthal

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