'Cedar Rapids': A Mildly Enjoyable Journey
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Director Miguel Arteta, who brings a knack for discomfiting comedy to work in independent film and ostensibly "edgy" television (he's directed episodes of "Six Feet Under," "The Office" and "Ugly Betty," among other series) seems to also have a penchant or affinity to awkward man-children who find, or make, themselves fish out of water. In 2000's "Chuck & Buck" it was Mike White's goofy, cheerful, snaggletoothed Buck, who very inconveniently reintroduces himself into the life of his childhood best friend who's gone on not only to actual adult socialization, but substantial showbiz success, and who doesn't want or need to be seen with such an overeager weirdo. In 2002's "The Good Girl" it was Jake Gyllenhaal's persistent Holden Caulfield wannabe, who wormed himself into the life of bored housewife Jennifer Aniston. Unlike those characters, Ed Helms' Tim Lippe, the thrifty, brave, clean and reverent insurance salesman hero of "Cedar Rapids," Arteta's latest film, has no interest in getting out into the greater world. Tim has what seems like a perfectly content little existence in the small town of Brown Valley, Wis. He lives in the house he grew up in, fills up his cute little bird feeder every morning, and helps his neighbors out by giving them decent deals on genuinely useful insurance products. Oh, and he also has regular sex with his former grade-school teacher Macy (Sigourney Weaver), who he still reflexively refers to as Mrs. Vanderhei.
Tim's realm is in for some long-overdue shaking, it's clear, and it looks like it might be coming from Macy, whose mere good time Tim is taking for a grand passion that will lead to wedlock. But before Macy can drop the bomb on him, duty calls: The autoerotic asphyxiation death of a hotshot colleague (Thomas Lennon, reliably droll, who comes and goes) lands him a gig representing his firm at a big annual insurer's convention in the Iowa city of the film's title. Helms, always at the very least likable and at most hilarious and acute at portraying all-American Candides, provides good value enacting the almost de rigueur mini-scenarios that follow: Tim's first time on an airplane! Tim's first time at a hotel check-in; boy, isn't he squirrelly about giving the reception guy what's most likely his only credit card! Tim mistaking the prostitute hanging around at the hotel's entrance for a nice young lady who really ought not be smoking! And so on.
It certainly doesn't get any less predictable, or more memorable, from there. The hard-partying, obstinately vulgar rival salesman whom Tim's boss warned him to stay away from ends up as one of Tim's suitemates, and of course turns out to be not such a bad apple at all. This character, or "character" is played by John C. Reilly with typical "sure, I'll do five pages of dialogue with my gut hanging over the waistband of my boxers and wearing nothing else" uninhibitedness. The other suitemate is, as Tim puts it to Macy in a freaked-out voice, "an African-American man" played by Isiah Whitlock Jr., and if you've seen the trailer for this and thought, "Wow, that African-American man looks likely to walk away with the whole picture," you're not far wrong.
The women who conspire to loosen Tim up are played by Anne Heche, who's brisk, lively and still quite fetching as a wife and mom for whom Cedar Rapids is a kind of Vegas equivalent; and Alia Shawkat as the aforementioned prostitute, Bree, who at one point plies Tim with crystal meth, which made this viewer rather nostalgic for "The Breakfast Club," in which a mere marijuana cigarette sufficed to relax the kids and get them to "relate" to one another. (What's the saying? Oh, yes: "Kids, don't try this at home.")
As Tim despairs about the deep, dark secrets he's learned about his supposedly upstanding elders in the biz, Bree philosophizes, "We're all just selling something; me, a f---; you, insurance." Those who insist that there's something of a qualitative difference between the two goods/services that makes the sale of one permissible and the sale of another not, will not necessarily enjoy the ethic on which the film ultimately settles. The less uptight, as they say, will have an amusing enough time getting there, and some might even be glad that here Arteta's removed enough edge from his man-child hero that there's no chance of any of his quirks resonating in one's head the way that horrible rhyming incantation from "Chuck & Buck" did.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.