Cedar Rapids: Feel-Good Vulgarity

March 25, 2011

Cedar Rapids movieThe latest film from indie director Miguel Arteta (Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl) is reminiscent of a Frank Capra film, but with a lot more sex jokes. If it were written by one of the screenwriters in Robert Altman’s brilliant film The Player, the pitch might have been: “Think Mr. Smith Goes To Washington meets The Hangover.” For all I know, that might have actually been the pitch. After all, the film stars The Hangover‘s own Ed Helms, also beloved for his hilarious work as rageaholic Andy Bernard on TV’s The Office, and has a similar raunchy but sweet vibe that make it a good, lowbrow time for the whole family, so long as the family in question doesn’t have a problem with the kids hearing a lot of curse words and seeing a lot of alcohol and drug abuse and some (mostly male) nudity and sexual activity. 

Helms plays Tim Lippe, a naïve man-child who is more than content selling insurance in small-town Wisconsin, and feels like he is living the dream by regularly sleeping with his junior high school teacher, Ms. Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver), about whom he has delusions of long-term romantic love while she is clearly just having a good time. When Roger Lemke (Thomas Lennon of TV’s The State and Reno 911), the star salesman of Tim’s firm, suddenly and unexpectedly dies, Tim’s boss (the always hilarious Stephen Root, a Coen brothers favorite and Jimmy James from the excellent ’90s sitcom NewsRadio) sends him to take Roger’s place at the annual insurance convention in the “big city” of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Tim is terrified of letting down the company (crudely named Brownstar Insurance) by failing to win the coveted award annually won by Roger, but he steps up to the challenge with the can-do spirit and determination of a Capra hero. 

At the convention, Tim befriends a few of his fellow insurance salespeople, including the almost equally square Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock, Jr. of TV’s The Wire, the source of recurring jokes as he plays completely against type), the perpetually drunken lout Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly, clearly pulling out all the stops in a wildly over-the-top comedic performance), and the sexy and flirtatious Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche, in her first really major screen role since Gus van Sant’s ill-advised Psycho remake in 1998). He also develops a strangely sweet connection with Bree (Alia Shawkat, best known as Maeby Funke on TV’s beloved Arrested Development), a small-town hooker who hangs around the hotel during the convention, when business is booming for her. His gradually developing friendship with Dean, from whom Tim’s boss warned him to stay away, coupled with the unseemly manner of Roger’s death (similar to the late, great David Carradine), serve to cast Tim and his company in an unfavorable light in the eyes of Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith, best known as Red Foreman on TV’s That 70s Show and the evil henchman Clarence J. Boddicker in Robocop), the self-righteously pious chairman of the convention.

The subsequent storyline will offer few surprises to any reasonably astute film viewer, and could even be called formulaic, but the efforts of the excellent ensemble cast and the film’s fearlessness in not shying away from the most vulgar humor possible make it a highly enjoyable, if somewhat forgettable, comedy. There is a lot to be said for a lack of pretension, which Cedar Rapids, much like its lead character, consistently displays. It also helps that the characters are fully rounded, believable and likable, rather than the cardboard frames from which lame jokes can be hung seen in so many lesser raunchy comedies. There is a subtle impression that Ronald might be gay, which is wisely never exploited for either comedic or revelatory effect, and we see the softer, more human sides of Dean and Joan, who could have been nothing more than, respectively, comedic and romantic foils for Tim’s character.

This is not to give the impression that the film’s focus is anything more (or less) than a good time, and delivers more than its fair share of hearty belly laughs. It is nice to see a film populated with excellent actors, many of whom are primarily known for television work, that rises above the level of most TV or cinematic comedy without taking itself seriously in any way. The ending is a little pat and obvious, but it sure was a fun time getting there.

Contact the Author: EzraStead@ArtsandEntertainmentPlayground.com

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