Review: Cedar Rapids

Miguel Arteta’s work thus far has been a little bit all over the map, from the disturbingly dark Chuck & Buck to the somewhat cartoonish lunacy of last year’s Youth in Revolt. Cedar Rapids is definitely on the cartoonish end of the scale but its impressive sense of restraint keeps it grounded and authentic, leaving us with a movie that’s simultaneously darkly funny and touchingly sincere.

This comedic premise is pretty simple: a naive bumpkin from a small Midwestern town (played by Ed Helms) heads to the “big city” of Cedar Rapids, Iowa for a regional insurance conference. “Fish-out-of-water being impressed by things that aren’t that impressive” is a cheap gag that’s been done many times and while Cedar Rapids gets a few good chuckles out of it early on, it quickly moves away from that overused idea and becomes more of a classic coming-of-age story. The twist of course is that the character who is coming-of-age isn’t a young man but rather an insurance salesman in his 40s. Most of the laughs come not from Helms’ Tim Lippe gawking wide-eyed at the wonders of a moderately-sized city but rather from the fantastically immature, high school-like social dynamic of the insurance convention.

At the forefront of that dynamic is John C. Reilly’s Dean Ziegler, a man who is completely in his element for the length of the film. Reilly has been funny in plenty of movies but never has he looked so completely comfortable in a comedic role as he does here. He creates a character that is that rarest of creatures, the drunken blowhard who in spite of his tremendous ego remains sympathetic (we all know a Dean in our lives). It takes Tim a while to warm up to the abrasive Dean but eventually the two becomes fast and close friends, a fact confirmed by Dean to every other character he encounters for the rest of the film. Reilly comes close to stealing the show, though his interaction with Tim is the heart of the movie and drives Tim’s story forward, an impressive feat in and of itself since it would have been easy to let Dean’s outrageous antics continue to dominate the movie.

Handling a blend of dark comedy and small town hyper-innocence is a very tricky matter. Some people do it well (like the Coen Brothers and Jared Hess) but most fail miserably, a group that I would say also includes Arteta at an earlier stage of his career. This time Arteta gets it. He doesn’t patronize his characters or ask us to laugh at their struggles. He takes their crises and conflicts seriously, no matter how trivial they might actually be, and gives us plenty of reasons to root for Tim rather than scoff at him.

There are a couple of really nice supporting performances from Anne Heche as the married saleswoman who cuts loose at the conference and does a great job as both a platonic and romantic female lead at various stages of the film, and Isiah Whitlock as the nerdy and mild-mannered Ronald. Whitlock, who was both terrifying and hilarious on “the HBO program The Wire“, shows here that he can play understated equally well and his presence gives us a nice straight man in the group.

If I have any complaints about the film, they would come during the party scene in which Tim finds his way to a drug-filled party in the backwoods of Cedar Rapids. For one the party scene features Tim doing things that just aren’t believable even in a somewhat cartoonish comedy like this. My biggest grip is probably the disappointment I felt after seeing Rob Corddry appear in the scene in what seemed to be a promising small role but ends up being completely underutilized. Alia Shawkat as the kind-hearted prostitute Bree is tolerable but doesn’t really bring a lot to the role.

While the party scene is an underwhelming episode, it’s certainly doesn’t hinder the film’s main storyline from resolving in a satisfying and sincere way. While I hate to borrow from another reviewer in my own review, I think Roger Ebert, as he so often does, summed this film up quickly and succinctly with the phrase “a sweet comedy with a dirty mind.” At its heart, this is a movie about nice people trying to do the right thing and because they’re human, they get up to some slightly mischievous antics. Comedy is perhaps more subject to personal tastes than any other form of filmmaking but at least for this reviewer, Cedar Rapids hits that sweet spot between wicked black comedy and light-hearted wackiness.