As we rode the 6E bus to the ol’ AMC Southdale Center 16 last night to see a screening of Cedar Rapids—the new comedy directed by Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl, Youth in Revolt)—my friend Jessie and I had a conversation that made us sound less like in-the-know twentysomethings and more like our mothers.
“So now…is this the one with Topher Grace in it or Jason Sudekis?”
“No, you are thinking of Hall Pass, which is the one where people from The Office get a week off of marriage or something.”
“Oh right! Yes, I am thinking of the one with Ed Helms from The Office.”
“No, Ed Helms is in Cedar Rapids. That’s the one we are seeing tonight.”
“Okay, and that is set in the 80s, where they have some sort of hijinks-filled night? Oh, where they play that Eddie Money song?”
“Uhhh…maybe? But I think it is set in present day Cedar Rapids, Iowa.”
“But it’s actually Ann Arbor.”
Even though we had seen a trailer once or twice, there’s a reason we had a hard time identifying this movie based on its plot. The advertising for Cedar Rapids has been minimal by Hollywood standards, and it’s just one amongst a handful of mid-winter releases that seem to be trying to ride on the coattails of the group-of-friends-of-opposing-types/road-trip/what-happens-here-stays-here bits of The Hangover. But Cedar Rapids places its main characters in more of an ethical quandary than a temporal one, and true to their Midwestern roots, they tend to elicit gentle chuckles rather than hearty guffaws.
Ed Helms plays Tim Lippe, who is essentially a more naïve, sheltered, small-town version of Andy Bernard and every other henpecked character he always plays. But this time he sells insurance. When the top salesman from his very conservative company dies in an auto-erotic asphyxiation incident, Tim finally gets his chance to go to the big annual convention and win the big annual award. The set up is extremely tidy and it takes all of ten minutes before Tim’s boss (Stephen Root) tells him who he should ally himself with (the president of the association, played by a super old-looking Kurtwood Smith) and who he must avoid at all costs (the foul-mouthed party boy salesman from Stevens Point, played by the delightful and versatile John C. Reilly). They might as well have flashed opposite day!!! across the screen at this point.
Once he lands in the big city, Tim is exposed to all sorts of mild (then escalating) corruption. If any of you have been to a work conference at a Holiday Inn somewhere in Ohio, you can probably relate. Coerced into letting his hair down a bit by Joan (a surprisingly comely Anne Heche), the one ball-busting guy’s girl in attendance, Tim loses a grip on all that he believes to be the core parts of him and develops some unlikely friendships, including one with a totally extraneous character played by the underused Alia Shawkat.
Helms’s gee-whiz innocence works to a degree, but in a somewhat raunchy comedy, it’s clear that the director is not trying to entirely rely on that aspect of his character for laughs. What’s crystal clear is that the director is relying on uncomfortable-middle-aged-men-in-boxer-shorts scenes and any and all references to vaginas that John C. Reilly’s character can fathom.
Local audiences may be offended at the portrayal of the inhabitants of the Midwest as dopey, unsophisticated, and easy to take advantage of, but what they will appreciate are the references to sports teams, neighboring cities, and the attention to detail in our regional dialect. (A character from Wisconsin invites everyone up to his cabin, but true to form, calls it a cottage. A character from Iowa asks someone to sit down on the davenport rather than the couch.)
Cedar Rapids is enjoyable enough, and there is a nice moment where Helms’s character explains why he got in to the insurance game and why; without this one minute speech, the movie could have easily been called Des Moines.