Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Journeys Into Obvious, Cedar Rapids Is A Problematically Formulaic Comedy.

The Good: Moments of humor, Good acting
The Bad: Predictable plot, Character arc is obvious, Jokes are often better independent of the film.
The Basics: Tim Lippe goes to Cedar Rapids for an insurance conference and through a series of misadventures comes to learn how corrupt the industry is in a particularly unfunny comedy.

Tonight, after sharing a romantic overnight with my wife, I abandoned her to my work. I would have felt bad, save that: 1. I offered to take her along and 2. I left her with a new (to us) computer program of some of her favorite video slot machines. I mention this because the movie I went to see tonight was Cedar Rapids and I was excited to get the preview tickets for it because it seemed like a film that she would have enjoyed. In fact, when I saw the previews for it, seeing it was a comedy that would prominently feature John C. Reilly, I thought it would be right up her alley. When I returned home to discover her and my mom playing a new game, both of them asked if they would have enjoyed the film and I was left somewhat stymied. That's not usually a reaction I have when a film is over.

Cedar Rapids has a lot of funny moments, but there came a point in the film when I openly acknowledged I stopped liking the movie. The moment came pretty late in the film, but it made me think of Six Feet Under (reviewed here!). In that series, David Fisher does some pretty stupid and counter-character things and while they almost always disappoint me when I rewatch the series, I tolerate it because I know the character and what he is going through is some seriously rough stuff. My point here is that when we are watching characters we like and are familiar with, we tend to have more tolerance for them when they are in crisis. That luxury does not exist in a film like Cedar Rapids, which makes it hard to accept some of the decisions Tim Lippe makes. As well, I began to notice after the point the movie turned that far fewer people were laughing, but the few who were laughing still were laughing much louder. Regardless, Cedar Rapids is one of those comedies that is utterly unnecessary and does not need to be seen on the big screen.

Shortly after Roger makes a video promoting Brown Star Insurance in Brown Valley, Wisconsin, he is found hanged as an act of autoerotic asphyxiation. This leaves the responsibility of representing Brown Star at the ASMI conference in Cedar Rapids to Tim Lippe. Tim is a nervous man living in Roger's shadow and whipped by his boss, Bill. In Cedar Rapids, Tim arrives at the insurance conference's hotel where he discovers he has a black roommate and the suite is being shared with the one man Bill advised Tim to avoid, Dean Ziegler. Dean is rowdy and uninhibited, but soon illustrates a loyalty that is uncharacteristic of the man Tim was advised to avoid.

While Tim tries to keep it cool in front of the president of the ASMI, Orin, in order to earn the prestigious Double Diamond award for Brown Star, he begins to learn some unpleasant truths about the insurance industry. Let loose by Dean, Tim explores a relationship with Joan, another insurance agent at the conference, and Bree, a prostitute he meets at the hotel.

The fundamental problem with Cedar Rapids is twofold: the preview shows the entire film and the comedy has nothing truly new in it that makes it honestly distinctive. The first problem is crippling for those who went to see virtually any comedy or Fox Searchlight film in recent memory. I first learned of Cedar Rapids when I saw The King's Speech, but having seen that one preview, I recalled all of the best moments when they came up in the movie. And, unfortunately, some of the smartest, most insightful moments of humor do come up early in the film, most notably the admission by Bill that Tim has never quite lived up to the potential that the older man saw in him.

The second problem is one that became more problematic the more I considered Cedar Rapids. As I drove home from the screening, admitting that the film was average at best up until the moment when it turned into an uncomfortably formulaic film, I realized that what I was struggling with most was to understand how the film was ever made. I have no conception of what sold Cedar Rapids to Fox Searchlight; what they heard that they thought was different in this than in any number of other comedies. In fact, Cedar Rapids follows an annoying number of conceits I associate with the typical HBO production: bared breasts, R-rated language and the use of recreational drugs treated like a commonplace thing. That made it far less funny as a whole than individual moments were.

Outside of having a few good verbal jokes that explore Tim's character deficiencies or the situations that have permeated the insurance industry and the specific conference, Cedar Rapids is an uncomfortable blend of predictable shock comedy gags. Men hugging is treated as something funny as are recurring gags involving exposed butts or insinuated male nudity. Tim in his underwear seemed to be something that people found funny that fell flat with me, especially later in the movie. Cedar Rapids also uses antigay humor an unfortunate amount of times, which also makes it difficult to sit through.

What saves Cedar Rapids from the absolute doldrums is the quality of the acting. John C. Reilly plays Dean Ziegler and fans of his work will be pleased to see he is finally out of his rut. Pretty much since Step Brothers (reviewed here!) he has been locked in a rut of characters who are mostly hapless losers. With Cedar Rapids, Reilly reminds viewers how he came to prominence in dramas by playing characters who have a serious side and sense of abilities to them. With Dean, he plays essentially a grown frat boy who could plausibly be an insurance agent. He doesn't play the role as a man who is goofy, just looser than most and as a result, the viewer feels like he is actually acting again and he is a pleasure to watch.

The supporting cast of Cedar Rapids is exceptional. Kurtwood Smith is subtle and convincing as the conservative Orin, making the viewer believe that his character believes in the moral clause that makes the ASMI award impossible for Dean to get. Anne Heche is unrecognizable as the redhead Joan and she is far more grounded in the role than in other works, like Ally McBeal. Sigourney Weaver makes the most of her brief time onscreen as Macey, Tim's partner who is making the most of her widowed life.

Ed Helms is decent as Tim. He plays Tim as uncertain, not geeky, which distinguishes him from his character from The Hangover. Tim is naive and kind, but not cowed or unfortunately maligned the way many of his characters are. But the one who steals the show is Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Ronald, the black insurance agent who has truly devoted his life to growing his own agency. Whitlock Jr. draws the viewer by playing the role of Ronald with an intense seriousness that "reads" as very real and very likable. He is the most plausible character in the frequently zany world of Cedar Rapids and he is a treat to watch.

Unfortunately, despite her early entrance into Cedar Rapids, the same cannot be said of Alia Shawat. Shawat is vastly underused in her role as Bree and she is given no real comedic moments to shine. Given that Cedar Rapids is largely predictable with character arcs that seem more predictable than audacious, this is no surprise. Director Miguel Arteta and writer Phil Johnson seem to have nothing truly new to say and while they stock the work with wonderful actors who make the most of the parts they are given, there is not enough to it to draw viewers to the theaters to see it.

For other films with Ed Helms, check out my reviews of:
The Hangover Part II
The Hangover
Monsters Vs. Aliens


For other film reviews, please visit my index page!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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