Film review: Cedar Rapids

June 27, 2011

originally published in the Raleigh News & Observer

Well, it’s official. Ed Helms is a movie star. And he can thank his director for that.

The former “Daily Show” correspondent and veteran ensemble player (“The Hangover,” “The Office”) headlines “Cedar Rapids,” the year’s first genuine sleeper comedy hit. As it turns out, “Cedar Rapids” was directed by Miguel Arteta, author of last year’s sleeper comedy hit, the Michael Cera freakout “Youth in Revolt.”

This is particularly relevant, because the success of “Cedar Rapids” comes as much from Arteta’s sure-handed direction as it does with Helms’ leading performance.

It goes like this: Small town insurance agent Tim Lippe (Helms) is recruited to attend the industry’s regional conference in the (relatively) big city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Tim, who has never left his hometown and is dating his grade school teacher (Sigourney Weaver), is overjoyed but ill-prepared. If naivete were potato chips, Tim would be Frito-Lay.

A gentle and earnest soul, Tim sincerely believes insurance agents are put on the planet to help people. But in the harsh metropolis of Cedar Rapids, he discovers another side of the business: a cruel and shallow money trench, as Hunter Thompson might describe it, where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.

A less interesting comedy would start coasting at this point, making fun of the local rubes and riding the basic premise of little-fish-in-a-slightly-bigger-pond. But “Cedar Rapids” has more interesting plans for its characters and scenarios.

Tim eventually makes some pals at the convention – John C. Reilly as an obnoxious salesman Dean Ziegler; Isiah Whitlock Jr. as straight arrow Ronald Wilkes; and a terrific Anne Heche as party girl Joan Fox.

In the manner of professional conference attendees since the dawn of time, the four bond over shop talk and drink overpriced cocktails in the hotel bar. Then the interesting things start to happen, and much of the joy of the movie is watching the script and the actors peel off in unexpected directions.

I don’t want to spoil anything, but it won’t hurt to list some of the elements these intrepid insurance agents encounter in the moral cesspool of Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Bribery. Corruption. Adultery. Drunken skinny-dipping. Hookers. Methamphetamines. Hookers on methamphetamines. Rob Corddry with a neck tattoo. Things of this nature.

Low-key humor

“Cedar Rapids” provides a lot of good laughs along the way – the sort of laughs that grow organically from the characters and situations. Reilly steals every scene he’s in with eye-poppingly profane anecdotes, and Whitlock has one scene in particular that might be the funniest of the whole film. And it’s great to see the talented comedienne Heche back in action, too.

Meanwhile, Helms does the smart thing and simply reacts to the slow-motion train wreck his weekend has become. By underplaying the farcical elements, he gets more and better laughs.

Director Arteta and the ensemble recognize that Helms’ humor is understated, and build the film around him accordingly. It’s a skillful approach, and it works wonders. Put a more rambunctious comic in the middle of this movie – Will Ferrell, say – and the delicate tone would be ruined.

A very pleasant surprise indeed, “Cedar Rapids” is a funny script well-executed by a great cast. If the universe were at all just, or even moderately discerning, it would be ruling the box office this spring.

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