Saturday, February 19, 2011

Movie Review: "Cedar Rapids"

Original review published at the Advisor and Source.

"Cedar Rapids" may be the first coming-of-age movie about a 30-year-old man.

Played by Ed Helms with the same joyful naivety that he brought to the "The Hangover" and "The Office," Tim Lippe is a successful insurance agent who's never left the small town he grew up in. He believes in the old-fashioned values his firm touts and thinks his dalliances with his elementary schoolteacher (Sigourney Weaver) are "super awesome."

When the agency's top salesman dies in a compromising situation, Tim is sent to an annual insurance convention in Cedar Rapids to bring home the coveted "Double Diamond Award," bestowed upon agencies that best display the virtues of the association's uptight president. Tim should be a shoo-in for bringing home the gold - his worst curse words are "My foot" and when he saunters up to the bar, he orders a root beer. Tim's boss (Stephen Root) has even taken precautions to team Tim up with an equally straight-laced and mundane roommate (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.) for the weekend.

Obviously, it goes without saying that a housewife looking for an escape (Anne Heche) and a hard-drinking blowhard (John C. Reilly) introduce Tim to the temptations of "big city" life. And you've probably guessed that the once uptight teetotaler gets more than he bargained for as things spiral out of control.

What you may not have predicted, however, is how sweet the entire proceedings are.

Much of that can be attributed to Helms, who can do the wide-eyed nice guy routine better than anyone these days. There's an excitement to Tim's first adventures in the city and Helms captures Tim's eagerness perfectly. He keeps Tim childlike and naive, but never dumb. Tim's too focused on his job to drink, too in love with his teacher girlfriend (who tries telling him they're just "having a good time") to flirt with women and too inexperienced at life outside his little hamlet to know what a local prostitute means when she asks him to "party." But he's good at his job, genuinely loves what he does and firmly believes that insurance agents are heroes fighting for the little guy. It's this enthusiasm that makes Tim a character we enjoy spending 90 minutes with.

A lesser movie would have focused on Tim's competition with Reilly's crass, annoying sales agent. And while Reilly is in full "Step Brothers" mode here, spouting off dirty one-liners and hamming it up for the camera, his character is actually revealed to be a good guy, loyal to his friends and living it up in Cedar Rapids because his home life is in the dumps. It's a fun and raunchy role for Reilly, but it's balanced out by genuine warmth.

That's actually a good way to describe the majority of "Cedar Rapids." There are several big laughs to be had as Tim experiences life outside his comfort zone, but very few of the jokes are at his expense. The cohorts he finds himself surrounded by at the hotel are funny to watch - particularly Whitlock, who has the film's funniest moment when he saves Tim from a fight late in the film - but what stuck with me was the sense of warmth and camaraderie among the cast.

It's rare these days that a genuinely good character can be the hero of a film. Hollywood likes flawed heroes and lately it seems that cads, slackers and cons make up the majority of comedic protagonists. Tim's a good character whose innate niceness pulls broken people into his orbit. In addition to Reilly's character, Anne Heche is surprisingly affective as a bored housewife who looks forward to this weekend as her yearly escape from marriage. These characters do some pretty terrible things during their weekend and, yes, pull Tim down with them on occasion. But what's refreshing is how, through his experiences, Tim sees the hypocrisy that surrounds him and rediscovers not only his own integrity but the bonds formed among problematic people. It's a surprising mature subtext for a raunchy comedy.

I'm not saying "Cedar Rapids" is "The Shawshank Redemption." Director Miguel Artera seems to sacrifice subtlety and wit for big, crass laughs too often, and by the time Tim has to be rescued from a drug-fueled party in the sticks, it's begun to run out of steam. Kurtwood Smith's work as the ultra-moral association president is cliche and derivative of any role that has ever called for a crusty dean or camp counselor.

But maybe that makes sense. With its ribald jokes and spirit of camaraderie, "Cedar Rapids" really might be best described as a summer camp movie for grownups, set inside a hotel. It's a funny, surprisingly warm movie and I wouldn't mind spending some time with these characters again next conventions season.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.