My Favorite Movies – Cedar Rapids (2011)

8 May

By Tanner Smith

It was around the third viewing I started to recognize this one as a “favorite.” A few days ago, I was watching some ’70s films like “Rocky,” “Harold and Maude,” and “Being There.” Then I randomly decided to watch “Cedar Rapids,” and I couldn’t help but notice…it feels like a Hal Ashby film from the ’70s! The way the characters talk and relate to each other, the low-key approach to the filmmaking, the delicate balance of outrageous comedy and gentle drama… Actually, now that I think of it, even John C. Reilly’s party-animal character reminded me of Jack Nicholson’s Bad Ass character in “The Last Detail!” (Except, Reilly in this film says a lot of things that Nicholson wouldn’t have been allowed to say in the ’70s.)

Anyway, I decided to make a post about it after watching it again this morning. So here we are.

Ed Helms stars in the film, and as tired as I am of the typical Helms character (I mean, I liked him fine in “The Hangover,” but his Andy Bernard is one of my least favorite characters in “The Office”), he shines here as the naive, idealistic, socially awkward insurance salesman named Tim Lippe, who is put in a fish-out-of-water scenario, leaving his home to spend a weekend in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where everything is strange to him. He doesn’t understand why the hotel front desk needs his credit card if he’s paying with traveler’s checks, he doesn’t pick up on certain social cues (such as a pickup from a prostitute, to whom he gives a butterscotch candy), and he’s horrified to find he’s sharing a room with a black man, a fellow salesman named Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). (When he’s on the phone with his lover back home, played by Sigourney Weaver, who tries her best to make it clear that she doesn’t want a romantic commitment, he exclaims, “There’s an Afro-American man in my room!”)

Tim Lippe’s sincere naïveté reminded me of Peter Sellers’ Chauncey Gardiner in “Being There.”

Anyway, Tim is in Cedar Rapids to represent his insurance company at a regional conference. He’s actually a replacement for the company’s best salesman who died in an act of autoerotic asphyxiation. (Though no one at the company wants to talk about HOW he died, especially not Tim, who saw the man as a moral Christian.)

Tim is given one instruction from his uptight, moralistic boss Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root): stay away from Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a foulmouthed cynical salesman. But it turns out Dean is sharing the hotel room with Tim and Ronald, so it’s hard to avoid his loud mouth and ability to get people to party with him.

As you would expect, a lot happens with Tim in this wild, eventful weekend. He participates in conference activities such as a scavenger hunt, he makes friends with Dean, Ronald, and flirty Joan (Anne Heche), he has a drugged-out experience at a rowdy house party, he learns harsh truths about people he thought he could count on, and he even goes as far as to abandon his own principles (not a good thing in this particular case). But the film is not funny because it’s laughing at this innocent character throughout–it’s funny because it’s sincere. It likes Tim Lippe. It’s not funny when he’s being humiliated; it’s funny when his pure good-guy persona causes him to be confused by certain things in this strange land called Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And that’s what gives the film its heart as well.

The heart also lies in the film’s biggest strength, which is its character interaction. I’ve seen so many buddy comedies where the friendship is forced to further the plot forward–but here, the friendships Tim forms with Joan, Dean, and Ronald feel REAL. They’re given time to naturally develop. (And in an 86-minute film, that should truly say something.)

The director of “Cedar Rapids” was Miquel Arteta, who is best known for his films that have as much to with heart as they do comedy. Not all of his films work for me though, like the forgotten “Youth in Revolt” and the overrated “Beatriz at Dinner,” but I really like his trademark style. And I also like “The Good Girl,” which I thought was his best film until I saw this one. (He also directed the critically-praised “Chuck & Buck,” which I have not seen yet.) The writer was Phil Johnston, and his screenplay was nominated for the Indie Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay.

You know, the name Phil Johnston doesn’t sound familiar to me. Let me see what he’s written since “Cedar Rapids”….. Whoa. “Zootopia” and the “Wreck-It Ralph” movies?? The guy gets around! Kudos, Phil!

If you haven’t seen “Cedar Rapids,” I highly recommend it. It’s a pitch-perfect indie comedy that deserves more attention. Also, stay during the end-credits–it’s one of the biggest laughs of the movie!

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