Ed Helms heads to an unconventional convention in a film that’s dark, funny, raunchy and sweet all at the same time
Cedar Rapids (2010)
Directed by Miguel Arteta
Cast: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche
Is it me, or have all the big-name Hollywood comedians (Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Adam Sandler, Jack Black) worn out their comedy film welcomes? Are these former juggernauts capable of generating anything other than a weary, been-there-done-that reaction in viewers these days? Is it that we’re burned out on them, or has comedy just moved on? Ten years ago, Big Momma’s House pulled in $117 million. Two weeks ago, Martin Lawrence couldn’t get arrested in the follow-up flop Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son.
Ever since The 40-Year-Old Virgin became a massive sensation in 2005, Americans have developed a taste for edgier, more adult-oriented humor. Gone are the pratfalls, fart jokes and fat suits of the ’90s. Now, it’s all about sad-sack characters, uncomfortable situations and a healthy undercurrent of R-rated raunch.
Cedar Rapids follows in this vein by crafting a low-key comedy that’s equal parts drama, staffed by a collection of comedy industry ringers. It’s not about star power anymore, it’s about comedic chops. Hence, we’ve got atypical leading man Ed Helms (“The Daily Show,” The Hangover, “The Office”) front and center as Tim Lippe, a naive but sincere insurance agent from a small Wisconsin berg. Tim seems happy with his small-town existence. He’s more or less fulfilled by simply helping out his clients and engaging in the occasional booty call with his old middle-school teacher (Sigourney Weaver in a great role). As outside observers, though, we can tell Tim is just treading water, going nowhere in life. His boss gives him no respect, he’s got no family to speak of, and his attempts to label himself “pre-engaged” are alternately sad and laughable.
One day, though, Tim is prevailed upon to head to the “big city” of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for an annual insurance industry convention. His insurance firm’s star agent has just passed away under unsavory circumstances, and it’s now on Tim’s unsteady shoulders to bring home the convention’s coveted Two Diamonds award. Tim has never been outside of his hometown and greets the trip with equal amounts of trepidation and giddiness.
Wowed by the wonders of staying at a hotel with an indoor pool (“It’s like Barbados!” he gushes), Tim starts to have a personal awakening. Joining him on this journey of belated self-discovery are foul-mouthed party animal Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), nerdy black dude Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and housewife sexpot Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche). Over the course of one Dark Business Weekend of the Soul, our boy Tim gets drunk, pisses off the convention’s uptight organizer, befriends a prostitute, smokes meth, gets laid and successfully compromises all his small-town ideals.
If this sounds more dark than funny, you’re sort of right. The film is directed by indie auteur Miguel Arteta (Star Maps, Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl, Youth in Revolt). The (underrated, in my book) Puerto Rican-born filmmaker has made a career out of finding humor in grim situations. Cedar Rapids is funny stuff. But it’s not Eddie Murphy in a fat suit funny. It’s “God, I’ve been in that awful situation” funny. The humor level is heightened thanks to that incredible cast of comedy ringers. In addition to the principals, we’ve got cameos by Stephen Root (“King of the Hill”), Kurtwood Smith (“That 70’s Show”), Rob Corddry (Hot Tub Time Machine), Alia Shawkat (“Arrested Development”) and Thomas Lennon (“Reno 911!”). The actors here are as committed to creating real characters as they are to milking laughs. As a result, the film has a level of realism that’s disarming.
But lest you think it’s all blue humor and bad behavior, Cedar Rapids has a real backbone of sweetness. At first, Tim is presented as a major rube. But the film isn’t interested in insulting him, and his genuineness eventually makes him a real hero. In the end, it’s as if a Frank Capra movie got into a head-on collision with a Judd Apatow movie. The result? Like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, sweet and slightly salty.
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