Cedar Rapids (2011) Fox Searchlight
1 hr. 27 mins.
Starring: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Root
Directed by: Miguel Arteta
MPAA Rating: R
Critic’s Rating: *** stars (out of 4 stars)
Cedar Rapids may achieve what Fargo did years ago so gleefully-stamp a delightfully delusional label on Midwestern malaise at its absolute nuttiness. Additionally, Cedar Rapids may also recall what the crudely hysterical The Hangover did for out-of-towners involved in over-the-top craziness in spontaneous, outrageously riotous spurts. Madcap Midwestern waywardness, sprinkled with antidotal slices of off-kilter humanity, is the signature ingredient that spearheads director Miguel Arteta’s (“Chuck & Buck”) grandly impish comedy Cedar Rapids.
Arteta, whose familiar irreverent touch is entertainingly realized from the episodic directorial work he’s demonstrated on the highly popular NBC sitcom The Office, presents a gentle wackiness that overtly engineers this spunky tale about klutzy insurance salesmen hanging around a hotel as they anticipate attending a conference in their given line of industry. Basically, the believable kooky characterizations and slight raunchy overtones give Cedar Rapids its multi-faceted personality and quirky soul.
Star Ed Helms (mostly recognized for his zany participation in “The Hangover” as well as his televised association with the infectiously funny “The Office”) portrays timid but honest sales rep Tim Lippe who’s sent to the regional insurance conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa to represent his company. Lippe’s boss Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root, “Office Space”) is giving his employee the opportunity to leave his home state of Wisconsin (something he’s NEVER done before) and experience the task of making his Brown Star Insurance company a formidable force in reputation. Of course the opportunity to venture outside state lines is based upon the recent passing of insurance guru Roger Lemke (Thomas Lennon, “Le Divorce”) who was the obvious choice to attend the convention in Cedar Rapids.
Lippe may seem like the “aw shucks” prototype such as the clean cut Ken Berry from a Mayberry RFD rerun but he’s not what you would call completely innocent. Interestingly, he’s playing footsies in an affair with his childhood teacher Macy Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver, “Avatar”) for whom he’s had a crush on since age twelve. Basically, Tim Lippe is a straight-laced guy that enjoys his work and holds his clientele in the upmost regard.
Ideally, Lippe looks to compete for the coveted industry award-the Two Diamond-in order to fulfill his professional capacity as being more than just an amiable small-town insurance salesman. Lippe wants to play with the big boys but his goody two shoes act may be tarnished if he’s to secure that valued honor as this industry’s resilient award winner. It does not help matters any in that he has to tolerate the hedonistic tendencies of his fellow conference attendees. Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly, “Cyrus”) is the party-hearty guy that cannot get enough. Joan (Anne Heche) is married and has children but it doesn’t stop her flirty appetite to make the clueless Tim Lippe her “personalized dessert treat.” And Ronald (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) is a black salesman that’s reserved but somewhat loco as Lippe’s roommate.
Tim Lippe epitomizes the ultimate fish-out-of-water yokel that goes with the flow although the flow is defiantly tainted. Leaving Wisconsin and gaining exposure to the outside world seems daunting for Lippe. For instance, Tim is totally in the dark about the business of the hotel-stationed chain-smoking hooker Bree (Alai Shawkat, “Amereeka”) he briefly confronts. When frequenting the hotel bar Lippe is ignorant of the trivial drinks he cannot order in the joint. Plus, people of color are a mystery to the sheltered Lippe which explains his initial bewildering reaction to African-American roommate Ronald. The one thing that remains mystifying to Tim Lippe is the grating “push-and-shove” politics of the insurance business. In order to conquer that elusive Two Diamond industry award he may have to undermine his quaint value system and demonstrate a killer instinct despite his man-child innocence. Thankfully, Lippe’s posse (led by the boisterous Dean) is there to offer reinforcement despite the “big city” diversion of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll to sabotage his earnest efforts to excel at the insurance convention.
Shrewdly, Cedar Rapids is an unassuming character-driven comedy that doesn’t cater to the overload of an oversized, outrageously loaded lunacy of laughs. Skillfully, it is a humble, witty laugher that resonates thanks to the low key wonderment of its fleshed-out irreverent characters. The funny bits are softened and stretched out occasionally. In fact, Cedar Rapids may be a head-scratching hybrid of a whimsical Frank Capra-esque fairy tale combined with the surfacing sacrilege of a Judd Apatow raunchfest. The concoction is quite impressive given the temptation of serving up another klutzy comedy heavy on empty-minded outlandishness.
Helms is soundly efficient as the small-town light bulb not bright enough to see the expanding world around him but likeable for the audience to embrace his schlub-like mentality. Tim Lippe may be another disguised variation of Helms’s alter egos Andy Bernard [“The Office”] and Stu Price [“The Hangover”] but he’s still a fascinating enigma sheltering his sense of pride and curiosity. Reilly is the driving force as the ribald sparkplug that offsets the fun-loving idiosyncrasies of his fellow insurance men and woman. Surprisingly, Heche is radiantly sexy, conflicted, seductive and vulnerable as the married tart searching her own way regardless of the looming circumstances at large.
Some may feel that Cedar Rapids could have been livelier and dipped more into the loopy aspects of its off-the-wall potential. Well, the approach taken is to be applauded as this fruity fable about disenfranchised workhorses lost in silenced silliness in uptight Middle America emphasizes the pulp of this low key, cavorting comedy.