Thursday, February 17, 2011

Review: "Cedar Rapids"


Critics are supposed to be repositories of sharp opinions and certainty, but I admit I didn't quite know what to make of "Cedar Rapids." This new comedy is springboarding out of the Sundance Film Festival and into theaters, starring Ed Helms as an incredibly naive insurance agent sent to a big conference in the title city.

When I say naive, I mean that Tim Lippe seems to have reached adulthood without having emerged from the cocoon of puberty. He's literally sleeping with his former sixth-grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver), and it's not a wild guess this is the only semblance of a relationship he's ever had. She's a recent divorcée enjoying her sexual freedom, but Tim thinks he's in love.

Tim appears to be a variant of Andy, Helms' dweebtastic character from TV's "The Office," with a double helping of cluelessness and a schmear of the uptight dentist he played in "The Hangover."

"I said, 'Here's a kid who's gonna go places,'" his boss tells him, "and then somehow you didn't."

Tim was born and raised in Brown Valley, Wisconsin, a small town where everybody knows everyone else, and the bad apples get picked out pretty quick. When the hotshot at Tim's company suddenly dies of auto-erotic asphyxiation, Tim is charged with taking his place at the insurance convention in Cedar Rapids.

His mission: To bring home another Two Diamond Award for excellence in insurance and integrity. They've got a three-year streak going, and the boss wants another.

Awards are funny things. It seems like anybody can dream up a prize with no tangible benefits, and people will trip over themselves trying to win one.

At my first newspaper gig, we were turning a sleepy community weekly into a competitive daily, and our editor cleverly dreamed up the "20 Byline Club" to motivate us to churn out copy. It was just a cheap plaque, but anybody who wrote 20 or more stories in a week got their name on it. Mine was plastered all over it, of which I was exceedingly proud at the time, but now I look back and chuckle. I was working 75 hours a week for 17 grand a year, killing myself so an upstart rag could be filled with stories on the cheap, and the only person who benefited from my 20 bylines was the guy at the trophy shop who got a few bucks to stencil a name.

Anyway, Tim meets up with a host of other characters equally as unlikely as himself. There's Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a boozing, loudmouthed glad-hander whom Tim was expressly warned to stay from. Of course, they're forced to be roommates, and soon they're downing shots together.

Then there's Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), nicknamed Foxy, who uses the annual convention as a chance to liberate herself from her boring life, married with two kids. She sets her sights on the gullible Tim as this year's dance partner.

Kurtwood Smith is Orin Helgesson, the association president who dreamed up the Two Diamond thingamajig. He explicitly wants to marry God and business, which prefers the secular life.

The only one who seems grounded and plausible is Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a straight-arrow type who professes a fondness for "The Wire," which is an inside joke because Whitlock was in it.

There are a decent amount of laughs, and John C. Reilly in particular gets off a lot of incredibly tasteless yet funny one-liners. At a morning prayer breakfast, he complains of "big-time beer (poops) this morning."

My ambivalence about this movie is rooted in the way the director Miguel Arteta and rookie screenwriter Phil Johnston approach these characters. We don't believe for a second in them as real people, or that the cast is invested in them beyond a vehicle for yucks.

Helms and company seem like they're mocking middle-America vanilla-ness, which is ripe for mocking, but they also want to embrace it with a cuddly ending. Even Tim Lippe could see through that ruse.

2.5 stars out of four

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