Cedar Rapids Review

Ed Helms, a funny man who came to public attention with his years on The Daily Show and then The Office, dominated big screen comedy one year as part of the Hangover ensemble. Helms played a nebbish guy dragged by charismatic friends into the wild to find his spine, a role that suits him so well that it works just as well in a not-as-broad indie like Cedar Rapids—where he plays the same personality, only this time at center stage. His character, Tim Lippe, an honest small town insurance man, gets a gentler treatment than his Hangover counterpart, and also a setting that’s more grounded.

In many ways, Cedar Rapids wears the traits of a typical Sundance-ready comedy. The usual suspects are present: a comedian in a quirky but vaguely dramatic main role, recognizable character actors in strange supporting roles, affection towards a subject matter or profession that is not considered glamorous, death and gratuitous use of hard drugs played for laughs, and then a sweepingly sweet morality tale to tie a nice bow that makes us forget the lapses of immorality along the way that the film uses to give it a few puffs of edginess.

Yeah, it’s easy to put up a sardonic shield after seeing one of these one too many times. The tone is all too familiar, the unexpected becomes expected, and what’s left to enjoy are the performances of comic veterans who are cocksure in what they’re doing; but that, too, lends to the film tipping its hand. At this point, how often have we seen John C. Reilly play a well-meaning loudmouth who says outrageous things? It’s still amusing because it’s John C. Reilly, but it just seems too easy. Similarly, the great Stephen Root only gets to play one note, and it’s a note that sounds like it was originally meant for Rip Torn.

Really, the only one that seems to be trying on a distinct character is Isiah Whitlock, Jr.—most famous for playing Senator Clay “Sheeeeeeeyit” Davis on The Wire—but he doesn’t get too many jokes. When the most memorable joke is that his character is a “suit and tie” black man who then pretends to be gangsta by imitating Omar from The Wire (his favorite TV program), you almost have to wonder if that’s all there is to his presence.

The main joke of the movie is a pretty good one, though: it’s a fish-out-of-water story that’s not that far off shore. Instead of small town boy leaves home for the first time for the big city and gets lost in the urban jungle, it’s small town boy leaves home for the first time for Cedar Rapids, Iowa and attends an insurance convention. He still breaks out of his shell, tries new things for the first time, lets his naivete gets him into trouble, make new friends and gains courage and self-respect and all that. He just does it all mostly within the confines of a hotel complex. Helms gets the biggest credit for injecting such likable earnestness into a character who could have easily been a neurotic caricature.

Lippe also bonds with a pretty lady played by Anne Heche, who joins the group but doesn’t get to be funny as much as she gets to be charming and kooky, with a morally ambiguous side that only makes her the right kind of female lead for comedy of this tone, because the film doesn’t feel it necessary to redeem her flaw.

If The Hangover has a naked Ken Jeong hamming up an effeminate mob boss, Cedar Rapids has a tattooed Rob Corddry playing a violent deadbeat straight. The biggest challenge they have to deal with isn’t tangling with a tiger; it’s winning an insurance company award. There’s something endearing about a movie that follows a Hangover-like crazy trip formula, but with all the stakes set very low. You either relate to that naivete or you simply find it cute, but it’s more pleasant to watch and easier to like than the antics of a hipper, more obnoxious bunch.

"Cedar Rapids" opens February 11, 2011 and is rated R. Comedy. Directed by Miguel Arteta. Written by Phil Johnston. Starring Anne Heche, Ed Helms, Isiah Whitlock Jr, John C Reilly, Kurtwood Smith.

Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.


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