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Non-Review Review: Cedar Rapids

Cedar Rapids is a charming little film, even if it seems to struggle a bit blending its drama and its comedy. Despite unfolding at an insurance corporate conference, there’s a lot of very sincere and very earnest observations contained in the film, as we watch small-town insurance salesman Tim Lippe expand his world view. (Not just figuratively, but literally – the film features the character’s first trip on an airplane, for example.) While the movie’s sincerity and respect for the naive small-town operator lends the movie a bit of weight, the film struggles to balance that earnestness with a very immature sense of humour. The resulting cocktail isn’t always smooth, but it’s always fascinating, and director Miguel Arteta populates the film with a talented cast who help keep it all together.

It never really embraces its drama or its comedy...

In many ways, Cedar Rapids feels like a relatively low-key indie comedy about Tim’s journey of self-discovery. After the death of his company’s star insurance dealer, Tim is dispatched to the industry’s most respected annual event, help in Cedar Rapids. Out of his element, Tim makes new friends and learns truths about himself, his place in the grand scheme of things and even the world. As brought to life by Ed Helms, Tim is a likeable protagonist, albeit a conventional one. We know his character arc from the moment he appears and we know that his innocent optimism must give way to an understanding of the cynical way that the world works – even in a business as seemingly boring and impersonal as insurance.

Phil Johnston’s script, included on the Hollywood black list in 2009, treats Tim with a great deal of respect. Yes, his misunderstandings about the world around him are a source of black humour, but we often feel just a little bit sad about laughing at him – if only because another piece of his innocence is often chiseled away. Over the course of the film, we come to understand Tim, and even come to like him quite a bit. It would be easy to turn a film about a naive young insurance salesman into a farce, or to make him the subject of abject mockery. To the credit of the film, it refuses to do that, and treats Tim as serious character, with his own worldview, opinions, and reasons for how he turned out.

Tim's career reaches new heights...

This makes it almost a bit surreal when the film resorts repeatedly to fairly cheap comedy. Tim makes an announcement to the final gathering of insurance agents about a scandal within the organisation, while the film uses it as a gay joke. There are jokes about Tim eating stuff that doesn’t agree with him and the “beer sh!ts” the morning after the night before. The movie treats two naked men embracing as hilarious. It’s not that there’s a problem with this – it’s just that they seem a bit incongruous in the context of the film. There’s a surreal dissonance between the respect it affords Tim and the off-hand fratboy humour.

That’s not to suggest that the film is excessive or gratuitous. The jokes relating to bodily functions are somewhat milder than one might expect in a modern Judd Atapow production, it just feels weird to see them in a comedy that seems so tightly centred around a character’s personal development and his sincere attempts to find his way in the world. Don’t get me wrong, it can be (and has been) done, it just doesn’t work quite as well here as it did in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

Naked ambition...

Still, it isn’t a fatal flaw, it just seems to throw the tone off a little bit, especially when it seems like Johnston’s script actually has a lot of astute things to say, especially about the role of morality in modern life, and the inherent hypocrisy that many authority figures demonstrate. “There is a separation between church and insurance,” black-listed insurance salesman Dean Ziegler warns the crusty president of the august institution. “It’s in the constitution!”

And yet we watch a body that indulges in morning prayers, and threatens to punish individuals and institutions that don’t meet its high standards of morality. There’s talk of removing an award from a previous winner because of a personal indiscretion. It seems that people can be punished simply for making the wrong friends. And, of course, it’s not that much of surprise that the organisation is corrupt and tainted – that the stern authority figures that reinforce those lofty standards are using their positions to attack and punish those they disagree with or worse.

Keep a lid on it...

It’s a fascinating exploration of the role that religious morality can play in a modern society, filtered through the admittedly ridiculous lens of an insurance get-together. It’s amazing how deeply that sort of moral righteousness and condemnation can weave itself into the national fabric, and how it can be abused to ostracize and victimise and exclude individuals who really don’t deserve it. There’s a wonderful humanism at the heart of Cedar Rapids, and Johnston’s script works because it treats the issue relatively seriously while picking the most absurd of settings.

The cast is very good. Helms is great as Tim, displaying the same sort of out-of-touch sincerity that makes him a joy to watch elsewhere. Sigourney Weaver is impressive as his lover, and former teacher. Isiah Whitlock Jr. has great fun as the straight-laced Ronald Wilkes, an insurance salesman who affords himself the luxury of enjoying the HBO program The Wire. However, it’s Anne Heche and John C. Reilly who steal the show as two of Tim’s new circle of friends. Reilly has an uncanny knack for comedy and drama, and so he works perfectly here, even when the movie around him doesn’t. Heche is surprisingly tender and yet surprisingly world-weary as the would-be object of Tim’s affection.

The Root of all evil...

Cedar Rapids is a little too uneven to be considered an instant comedy classic, but it is a clever and insightful movie with a lot of heart. It just has a bit of difficulty reconciling that with its somewhat off-colour sense of humour. It’s not a bad film, it’s quite entertaining, and often a little bit touching, and it’s far better than it’s UK DVD cover (complete with god-awful review quote from Nuts) would have you believe.

2 Responses

  1. Can’t go wrong with good characters, a grounded, inspired story and what may very well be the best role of John C. Reilly’s career thus far. Funny movie that also had a heart inside of it too. Good review Darren.

  2. I love your reviews. They often have very tender perceptions in them.

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