by Mel Valentin
In "Cedar Rapids," the latest comedy from filmmaker Miguel Arteta ("Youth in Revolt," "The Good Girl," "Chuck and Buck," "Star Maps"), Tim Lippe ("The Offfice" veteran and "The Hangover" co-star Ed Helms), an almost-forty insurance salesman who’s lived his entire life in Brown Valley, Wisconsin, finds his dull, uneventful world turned upside down (and back again) when he ventures outside the comforting, constricting environs of his small-town life for a weekend insurance convention at the nearest he’s come to a “big city,” Cedar Rapids, Iowa (pop: 128,000). A coming-of-middle-age story, "Cedar Rapids" is unequal parts raunchy and warm-hearted, a difficult balance Arteta, working from a script by Phil Johnston, achieves with seemingly minimal effort ("Cedar Rapids" brisk 86-minute running time doesn’t hurt either).When we first meet Lippe, he’s unhappily participating in a celebratory party for the insurance company’s star salesman and resident alpha male, Roger Lemke (Thomas Lennon). Lemke’s set to represent the six-employee company, Brown Star Insurance, at the upcoming regional insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but an unfortunate accident permanently incapacitates Lemke, leaving Lippe’s boss, Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root), with no choice but to turn to the next-best alternative, Lippe. Krogstad expects Lippe to bring back the insurance association’s yearly award for excellence, an award Brown Star Insurance has won the last three years. Lippe has a weekly appointment for sex with his one-time junior high-school teacher, Macy Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver). Unwilling to acknowledge the superficiality of their relationship, Lippe refers to sex as “making love.” The recently divorced Macy has a different perspective, though.
"If you see only one film set in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, see..."
To keep Lippe free of Cedar Rapids’ one or two temptations, Krogstad sets him up with another established insurance salesman, Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). Overbooking at the hotel forces Lippe and Wilkes to share their room with Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), an outspoken, obnoxious insurance salesman prone to bouts of outrageous vulgarity and discomforting truth telling. In short, Ziegler’s everything Lippe isn’t. Ziegler’s also intensely disliked by Krogstad and the insurance association’s president, Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith). Another veteran conventioneer, Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), attracted to Lippe’s nebbishy charms (such as they are), and a friendly hotel prostitute, Bree (Alia Shawkat), round out the cast of major and minor characters.
Despite an R-rating (for “for crude and sexual content, language and drug use”), Cedar Rapids doesn’t match Helms’ previous big-screen role in The Hangover for outrageous, excessive behavior typical of the “men behaving badly” sub-genre. With minimal cajoling, Lippe participates in Ziegler’s exceedingly modest bacchanalia (e.g., over-drinking, unauthorized pool use, etc.), perfect, apparently, for the new-to-modest-debauchery Lippe. The wiser-than-wise conventioneers periodically impart equally modest (i.e., not particularly deep or insightful) life lessons. Cedar Rapids contains mild satire aimed narrowly at the insurance industry and, more broadly, at self-important associations and conventioneers, along with a minor dig at mixing business with religion (specifically Christianity), but doesn’t go much further.
In an irony of minor proportions, the Cedar Rapids, Iowa we see onscreen isn’t the real Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Due to tax credit issues (or lack thereof), Cedar Rapids was filmed in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Not that it really matters, since most of the action in Cedar Rapids occurs inside the claustrophobic environs of the hotel. A local watering hole gets thrown into the mix, as does a waterside park, and a party in the literal woods where Cedar Rapids’ farcical elements reach their peak. It may make Cedar Rapids feel small and cramped, and thus, unnecessary big-screen viewing, but it also fits the tone and themes of the narrow, provincial lives typical of Middle America insurance salesman Arteta and Johnston wanted to convey with Cedar Rapids. Middle Americans, of course, might (and probably will) take offense at the satirical barbs aimed in their general direction.What matters more, unsurprisingly enough, is the combination of cast, script and direction and, at least in the casting and scripting departments, "Cedar Rapids" consistently exceeds expectations for the comedy genre. From Helms “innocent abroad” character (he’s not as smart, clever, or experienced as he thinks he is) to John C. Reilly’s obnoxious, truth-telling blowhard (who really just needs a friend or two) to Anne Heche as Lippe’s more age-appropriate romantic interest (with a secret of her own), to Isiah Whitlock Jr. (riffing on a character he played on "The Wire") the casting is nothing less than perfect, a testament to Arteta’s direction of his actors, a key aspect of directing critics and moviegoers tend to overlook, and Johnston’s near-flawless, incisive, well-paced script.
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originally posted: 02/11/11 17:48:24