Cedar Rapids

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Following an auto-erotic asphyxiation misadventure that ends the life of a hot-shot coworker, naïve manchild/insurance salesman Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) must represent his small town agency at a regional conference in metropolis Cedar Rapids. The nervous, neophyte conventioneer takes his very first airplane ride to get there, and shortly after arrival meets roomies Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Dean “Deanzie” Ziegler (John C. Reilly), unlikely guides for Tim’s initiation into the worldly, after hours pleasures that threaten Tim’s run at a coveted “Two Diamond” service award. En route to a predictably Capra-corn finale, director Miguel Arteta’s broad brushstrokes paint a familiar portrait of big-hearted rubes.

Whether or not Arteta laughs with or at his subjects is a matter of debate, but the principal cast members tackle their roles in earnest. The masterful Reilly, whose Deanzie constantly runs his filthy mouth without filter, relishes the opportunity to stick it to the hypocritical holy rollers running the ASMI (American Society of Mutual Insurance, but pronounced, naturally, “ass me”), knowing full well that straitlaced Ronald will patiently tolerate every outrageous insult and innuendo. Joining the fellows is Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), a candid and forward ASMI veteran who quickly tempts the “pre-engaged” Tim.

Despite Deanzie’s colorful way with words and his unconcealed pain at the unraveling of his marriage, Heche’s Ostrowski-Fox emerges as the most interesting figure in the movie. Arteta handles the fallout from her “what happens in Cedar Rapids stays in Cedar Rapids” adultery more effectively than the practically identical complication that Jason Retiman takes so seriously in “Up in the Air.” Helms is hardly George Clooney, but Lippe’s post-coital meltdown allows the actor to invest in a hysterical display of humiliation that includes a confessional phone call to the older woman (Sigourney Weaver as Lippe’s former middle school science teacher and current lover) Lippe believes he has wronged.

The comedy of embarrassment built around infantilized male protagonists is more than a cottage industry, and “Cedar Rapids” joins a long list of movies that wring laughs from fish-out-of-water scenarios capitalizing on Peter Pan-like characters embarking on journeys of self-discovery. Lippe’s adventure includes making the acquaintance of prostitute Bree (Alia Shawkat), whose heart of gold beats faster when introducing her new pal to the joys of crystal meth. Shawkat, like Heche, makes the most of her limited screen time and is a welcome presence in otherwise masculine territory.

“Cedar Rapids” seldom takes seriously its satirical mission to expose the hypocrisy of the ASMI’s religious piety and moral righteousness. Kurtwood Smith’s unctuous Orin Helgesson registers in several smaller scenes, including one that necessitates a nude locker room embrace. Arteta appears to relish any opportunity to showcase the pasty flab of his unclothed cast members, even if the dermal displays exist primarily to fuel uneasy gags about homosexuality. “Cedar Rapids” evolves into something as mild and unassuming as its central figure, and though Tim Lippe is a little long in the tooth to be the subject of a traditional bildungsroman, Helms inhabits him as a man who sheds his innocence without losing his good manners and essential decency.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/21/11.

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