By Scott Martin
Cedar Rapids, USA, 2011
Directed by Miguel Arteta
Most of the time during this film, I thought to myself, “This feels like an Alexander Payne movie.” Payne, for those unaware, directed wonderful and heartfelt movies like Election (1999) and Sideways (2004). Sure enough, by the time the credits rolled, Payne’s name was listed as a producer for the picture; his fingerprints are all over it, though this is a bit more screwball than anything he would normally direct. The actual director here, Miguel Arteta (Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl), doesn’t have the handle on human sympathy that Payne might, but he certainly hits it pretty close to home. Certainly pretty far from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which doesn’t seem to hold much sympathy for those who pass through it.
Looking at a brochure for a town like Cedar Rapids, at least as portrayed in the movie, you would expect the surface: nice hotels, pools, business conventions, etc. Then again, part of the joke of the film is about appearances and how deceiving they can be. Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) isn’t aware of any such underbellies when he gets the chance to visit. Actually, he isn’t much aware of anything outside of his own hometown. He lives in his childhood home, is working the same job he’s had since he was sixteen, and has never left. He’s so boxed in, he doesn’t even have room for new people; the only connection he has is a tidy affair with his seventh-grade teacher, Macy Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver). Don’t you just love the creative names that movies give school teachers?
Tim is the type of guy who doesn’t know his right from his wrong. His heart is too big for the industry of which he’s a part; he’s an insurance agent for Brown Valley. He’s never been the star, until, of course, an untimely (and ultimately embarrassing) death gives Tim the chance of a lifetime, to to an annual insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, give a presentation, and bring home their coveted trophy for a fourth consecutive year. Can he do it? Of course he can. That’s never the point of the movie. Through a close-knit group of characters who have only known each other for the course of a weekend, Tim discovers the deception of appearances in many forms. Against the wishes of his boss, Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root), he befriends a man named Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly). Ziegler is the definition of a wild cannon; he’s a vulgar womanizer, who is rumored to poach clients. Tim discovers an underbelly, or at least the only kind of underbelly a small town like Cedar Rapids can offer. He meets a prostitute named Bree (Alia Shawkat), discovers alcohol and drugs, and gets in what might be the first actual fist-fight he’s ever had.
This is a character piece, not just a screwball comedy (though it is that), and performances are what make or break character pieces. Obviously, there’s a bit of it that’s contingent upon the screenplay, but ultimately it boils down to the cast. Even further than that, the supporting cast. Helms, our leading man, is skilled at creating the type of character you can instantly follow; he’s the definition of the “everyman” in the same way as most comedic actors who do drama – Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, Steve Carrel, etc. Reilly, an Oscar nominee for Rob Marshall’s Chicago (2002), seems to have found a middle ground between the drama at which he excels and the comedy he loves doing; he plays Ziegler with an unassuming sense of carelessness and heartfelt cluelessness. Anne Heche is absolutely wonderful, and incredibly sexy, as Joan Ostrowski-Fox, the woman who does her best to catch Tim’s eye. The best turn in the film, though, is Isiah Whitlock, Jr. as Ronald Wilkes; consider him Cleveland to the film’s Family Guy, paternal, proud, and fun to be around. Smaller roles are filled by Kurtwood Smith, Alexa Vega, Thomas Lennon, Mike Birbiglia – the talent goes on and on.
As the film continues through its story, there are moments of personal depth that seem to be hinted at, but ultimately ignored in favor of a more lightweight film, but the hints are there. It’s unfortunate that the film never goes as deep as it could, unveiling a darker side of its characters, but there are genuine moments of drama, another Payne trait, mining deep emotional darkness amidst human comedy. Most of Payne’s films wind up being satire; this could have been a satire, but it winds up just being froth on a strong coffee: sweet, and that’s it. The finality of it all, however, is that Cedar Rapids, as a whole (the film and the town) wind up exactly where they should. The town, per usual, remains itself and keeps itself contained within its limits, neither changed nor furthered by the events of the film; the film, per formula, expands Tim Lippe’s life in the only way it knows how. It’s a coming-of-age tale, for an innocent man-child who needs things to be just a little bit disorganized so he can discover a few more things about himself. What the final moments of the film tell us, in a beautiful way, is that it’s all about the little things.
Contact the author: ScottMartin@MoviesIDidntGet.com