You might think that a movie featuring a crack-smoking hooker, death by auto-erotic asphyxiation and a truckload of disgusting language would have a hard time being wholesome and sweet to boot, but somehow, Cedar Rapids pulls it off.
The film’s split personality is down to the collision of two worlds. One, the honourable world seen through the eyes of the movie’s naïve, folksy lead Tim. The other, the slightly sordid one seen by everyone else.
Ed Helms (The Office, The Daily Show, The Hangover) plays Tim Lippe, a 34 year old insurance agent who was supposed to go places but, somehow, didn’t. Lippe is in a state of arrested development at the beginning of the film. He lives alone and considers himself pre-engaged to a woman who’s a darned sight less committed to him and who, incidentally, used to be his seventh grade teacher. When the burden of representing his firm at the annual Cedar Rapids insurance convention falls to him, Tim packs his bags and gets on a plane.
Directed by indie comedy maestro Michael Arteta (Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl, Youth in Revolt), and produced by Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways), Cedar Rapids benefits from a good heritage and a nicely compact concept. A small-town innocent experiences what is to him, a life-changingly cosmopolitan, decadent weekend at a Wisconsin insurance convention.
Tim’s the archetypal innocent abroad, except he’s not so much abroad as a short inter-state flight away from Brown Valley, the home town he’s never stepped outside of.
Tim’s arrival at the convention centre is full of laughs that could easily have come at the character’s expense, but don’t. His unabashed glee at the scent of chlorine and plastic greenery pervading the hotel complex (“It’s like I came to Barbados or somewhere”) is endearing rather than off-putting. Tim’s no Monsieur Hulot or Mr Bean. He’s like Will Ferrell in Elf, enchanted by the everyday and reminding the rest of us how to find excitement in mundanity.
It’s not long of course, before wet-behind-the-ears Tim is rooming with the ultimate bad influence (you know how these stories play out…) in the form of John C. Reilly as wild cannon Dean Ziegler. Hoping to bring the prestigious Two Diamonds award home to Brown Valley, Tim is initially apprehensive of Dean’s hedonistic ways, until a cream sherry or two loosens him up.
What follows, as might be expected, are drunken hurrahs, illicit flirtations and Tim learning some important lessons about the kind of man he is. In their revelry, Dean is flanked by Ron ‘The Ronimal’ Wilkes (The Wire’s Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), a mild mannered bachelor who does a fine Omar Little impression, and Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), a sexy married saleswoman who’s game for a laugh. The quartet crash a gay wedding, make an awful lot of innuendoes and generally let loose in the iniquitous den that is Cedar Rapids.
John C. Reilly is a gift to this movie. As Dean and Tim form their unlikely friendship, Dean turns out to be more than just a spectacular provider of filthy insults, though his line in bad language is impressive. His entire vocabulary was a bit of a joy in fact, full of brouhahas, peccadilloes and scuttlebutts as well as the bluer stuff that’ll keep frat pack fans happy. Reilly did a lot for the laugh ratio throughout the film, but had two stand-out moments for me, both of which found their way onto the trailer so I’m not spoiling anything when I say that his swimming R2-D2 and “dance with the tiger” were special.
Props need to go to Ed Helms too, for his genuinely likeable portrayal of Tim. Here’s a man who laminates his travel information and signs off phone calls to his girlfriend saying “I’ll dream of you in my heart”, but somehow, you don’t want to punch him. It’s quite the feat.
As his first lead movie role, Helms has chosen wisely. Tim’s contented vision of the world in which insurance agents can be heroes and where people should do the right thing just remains on the right side of sappy.
So perhaps unsurprisingly, what worked less well for me about Cedar Rapids were the moments when Tim falls apart. Sobbing on the phone to his ex-teacher girlfriend (Sigourney Weaver in yet another comedy where she fails to hit any comic notes, Paul, I’m looking at you…), Tim’s character started to grate.
His friendship with Bree, the convention centre call girl, veers too unsteadily between his pitying her bleak situation and the film making light of it. One line where the crack-addled teenager offered her new buddy Tim a sexual favour in astoundingly crude terms made my skin crawl a bit, though it had some of the audience guffawing.
When I first came out of the screening, I couldn’t decide if I’d just seen an R-rated frat movie with a heart, or something with some depth and a liberal splash of gross-out gags. Why can’t it be both, someone asked me, and they’re right.
The real lesson at the heart of Cedar Rapids is that people aren’t always what they seem; heroes sometimes disappoint, villains sometimes save you. I guess that can apply to movies too.
This nicely compact 87 minute romp is well worth a look. You’ll laugh, I promise. I’d describe it as the film equivalent of having a really, really nice shepherd’s pie for tea. You know more or less what you’re going to get, but it’ll leave you nicely contented.