Directed by Miguel Arteta–of Youth in Revolt and The Good Girl—Cedar Rapids represents yet another stereotypical journey through the comic banality of Middle America. Amusingly, the reviews of the film, good or bad, are more trite than the film itself–I’ll refrain from using such repossessed phrases as “hayseed” and “flyover country” or references to the wood-paneled veneer of Midwest structures. Produced by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, the duo responsible for such gems(?) as About Schmidt, Election and Sideways, Cedar Rapids is an unambitious comedy as ingenuous and vanilla as the middling characters Payne and Taylor purport to patronize. Despite its flaws–among them a shooting location of Ann Arbor, Michigan rather than the titular city, apparently due to the fallout of Iowa’s film tax credit shenanigans–the film is redeemed at every turn thanks to a fantastic cast, particularly the comedic clout of Ed Helms and John C. Reilly and the surprisingly effervescent yet delicate performance of Anne Heche.
Ed Helms has some street cred playing similarly guileless characters on The Office and The Daily Show; here he plays a small-town Wisconsin insurance salesman by the name of Tim Lippe, whose moxie will be tried in the sin city court of Cedar Rapids. We all know the basic plot. A sheltered, naïve character sheds his innocence through some trans-formative event (in this case sex and drugs) to become a well-balanced adult. Lippe wears a fanny pack, he doesn’t drink and he’s engaged (or pre-engaged) in an Oedipal liaison with his middle-school teacher (Sigourney Weaver), which he jejunely believes will lead to marriage and family. By the time he lands in Cedar Rapids, the writer’s hand is overplayed. Lippe mistakes the solicitation of the convention hall’s resident prostitute for genuine small-talk and we wonder just how more unworldly this character could be.
The fictional American Society of Mutual Insurance (ASMI) convention is filled with men in bad suits, speaking in salesman buzzwords and platitudes (a clever bit of screenwriting, actually), all vying for the top prize: the coveted “Two Diamond” award, which Lippe’s company has nabbed three years running. Lippe is startled to discover his roommate, Ronald, is a black man (apparently the only one there), but the two hit it off as similarly insipid and bromidic middle-aged men. His part is played by the dynamic Isiah Whitlock, Jr. of the HBO program The Wire and, despite cloying self-referentiality (it’s his favorite show and he later imitates another character from it), Ronald may be the most interesting character in the film. He seems to be the locus of all the sexual repression and, obviously, racial tension that is never elucidated, only connoted; see if you can spot the clues.
The third roommate is the one man Lippe was specifically advised to avoid, a souse and a womanizer by the name of Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly). Deanzie couldn’t care less about the Two Diamond award or the Christian-flecked missives of ASMI’s self-righteous and hypocritical leader Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith). He’s there to have a good time and maybe score some business. If Ronald is the black Tim Lippe then Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche) is the female Deanzie. She too is married with kids so the convention is her annual vacation (she actually quips, ‘What happens in Cedar Rapids, stays here’) and she keeps up with the boys shot-for-shot. Joan and Deanzie’s fun-loving attitude prevails and Lippe finds himself in a whirlwind of “big-city” sex and drugs with his hopes for the award and the restoration of his company’s good name diminishing proportionately.
The crux of the film’s humor is the overwrought naivete of Tim Lippe or, rather, his reactions to new experiences. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t, but nevertheless Cedar Rapids is often-hilarious, especially in the second half when the Hangover-esque dynamic crystallizes. John C. Reilly steals the show here in a role that must have been designed for him. He’s never been funnier as the crude and boisterous life-of-the-party, a more complicated man than he appears at first glance, and with a pitch-perfect accent to this Southerner’s ears. When all is said and done, the film unwinds in typical fashion with a middle-finger to authority, heroic redemption and a strong endorsement for “living a little.” Cedar Rapids may be a grossly exaggerated caricature of our rural homestead, but it’s the kind of characterization we’ve come to expect. Honestly, if the pay off is laughs, and this is more or less the case, count me in.