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Dustin Putman

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Cedar Rapids  (2011)
2 Stars
Directed by Miguel Arteta.
Cast: Ed Helms, Anne Heche, John C. Reilly, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Alia Shawkat, Kurtwood Smith, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Root, Thomas Lennon, Rob Corddry, Mike O'Malley, Michael Buie, Seth Morris.
2011 – 86 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for crude and sexual content, language and drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 1, 2011.
Nebbish insurance agent Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) thinks he's got it made when he starts sharing a weekly rendezvous with his still-foxy, newly divorced former elementary school teacher Macy Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver). For her, it's purely physical. For him, it's a relationship. As they lay in bed, post-coitus, Tim reveals to Macy how he had the hots for her even back then. "Did you feel the same way about me?" he asks. "You were twelve," she responds. "Cedar Rapids" combines the outlandish brand of humor of director Miguel Arteta's otherwise bland 2010 comedy "Youth in Revolt" with the attention to character of his exceptional 2002 drama "The Good Girl." Granted, there is nothing on hand as revelatory as Jennifer Aniston's performance in "The Good Girl," but Arteta still finds a happy medium between goofiness and compassion within his latest effort.

BrownStar Insurance employee Tim Lippe has never been on an airplane, or, for that matter, ever ventured outside his small Wisconsin hometown of Brown Valley. All that changes when wheeler-dealer boss Roger Lemke (Thomas Lennon) dies in a tragic autoerotic asphyxiation accident, leaving Tim next in line to attend Cedar Rapids' annual American Society of Mutual Insurers convention, where BrownStar has won the coveted Two Diamond Award for four years running. Viewing the trip as a rare treat—he's also never stayed at a hotel before—Tim ends up sharing a junior suite with two fellow insurance guys, the straight-laced Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and hard-partying Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly). Taking the unassuming Tim under their wing, they—along with married gal pal Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche)—are about to show their newest compadre a wild business trip he won't soon forget.

"Cedar Rapids" is little more than a comedic slice-of-life about one man coming into his own and discovering the world outside the invisible walls of Brown Valley, Wisconsin. It's not revolutionary, nor is it, thank goodness, a take-off of 2009's "The Hangover," also starring Ed Helms and dealing with the raucous antics of four friends away from home. More independent in nature, if not out-and-out unconventional, the film is firmly rooted on solid tonal ground. Director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Phil Johnston know when to go for a laugh, when to raise the roof, and when to simmer down and pay attention to the wants, desires and disappointments of its characters. If there is one thing they should have eased up on, and didn't, it is the script's occasional preoccupation with homophobic slurs and sexual orifices. They don't start off as mean-spirited, but the sheer volume of them by the second half calls unwanted attention to itself and leaves one to wonder if there isn't some kind of hidden agenda behind it. It's the one glaring annoyance in a picture that is both highly entertaining and keenly observed.

Especially wise is the decision to not turn makeshift underdog/hero Tim Lippe into an exaggeration or caricature. This would have been easy to do considering Tim is so sheltered and limited in certain life experiences. For sure, there is a naive quality to Tim—e.g., he can't believe he has to go through the safety procedures at the rinky-dink town airport since he knows the security guard; he is cautious of giving his credit card to the hotel clerk for "incidentals;" he confuses young prostitute Bree (Alia Shawkat) for an insurance colleague when she approaches him outside the hotel's front entrance—but there is also notable empathy in the way he is written and defined. As earnest as Tim can be—when he gets drunk and sleeps with Joan, he is horrified at the idea of being a philanderer and just as quick to call Macy up and confess the truth to her—he also is eventually tempted to the dark side when he discovers Roger had bought rather than earned the Two Diamond Award from ASMI president Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith) in years' past. The picture, then, becomes something of a morality tale, with the good Tim venturing out into a harsh landscape that tries to change him and his value system.

Ed Helms (2009's "The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard") is so perfect for the role of Tim Lippe it feels like the part was written expressly for him. Helms is understated and awkward, but that's what makes him as funny as he is; one believes him as this character, and he's additionally likable enough that you want to instantly root for him. Helms' dramatic know-how is less refined—in the few instances where he is asked to emote, it's not always seamless—but this is but a minimal observation about an otherwise fine performance. As Dean Ziegler, John C. Reilly (2010's "Cyrus") runs with the film's broadest role, letting loose and looking like he's having a blast. Underneath all of that, though, is a soul, one that is not lost upon Reilly as he essays a person who likes to have a good time, but also knows the difference between right and wrong, truth and devotion. With the exception of one bit where he thinks quick in order to rescue Tim from a sketchy, drug-fueled house party, Isiah Whitlock Jr. (2008's "Choke") is arguably underused as the upstanding Ronald Wilkes. Still, he's got stupendous comic timing and always seems to pop up just in time to provide an amusing tag to the end of scenes. In her juiciest big-screen role in almost a decade, Anne Heche (2010's "The Other Guys") is peppy, sweet and tender as the quick-thinking Joan Ostrowski-Fox; her friendship (and maybe more) with Tim is the heart of the movie. A scene where they bond while competing in a scavenger hunt to win a $45 gift certificate to a Japanese restaurant is a hoot. Finally, Sigourney Weaver (2010's "You Again") shows up briefly as Macy, but it's a small role that she amazingly does quite a lot with considering most of her scenes are literally given over a phone.

As "Cedar Rapids" approaches its third act and the fun that Tim and his cohorts have been having settles down, the picture loses some of its pizzazz. Director Miguel Arteta must return to the plot at hand, and this means a fairly standard climax where ASMI president Orin Helgesson's dirty dealings are unveiled and he gets a kind of comeuppance. The final scenes, encapsulating Tim's personal growth and providing a happy ending that, thankfully, does not boil down to something as generic as him getting the girl, are low-key and satisfying. "Cedar Rapids" isn't hard-hitting, but it is wise in its own dippy way, and in Ed Helms' Tim Lippe is a protagonist written with uncommon affection. It's in the portrayal of his unforgettable week of living a little that makes the whole journey worthwhile.
© 2011 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman