Sunday, August 21, 2011

Cedar Rapids

Director: Miguel Arteta
Starring: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr. Kurtwood Smith, Stephen Root, Mike O' Malley, Sigourney Weaver, Alia Shawkat
Running Time: 86 minutes
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 

Cedar Rapids makes for an interesting case study of a how a comedy can be intelligently made and well-acted yet still not measure up because it doesn't bring the laughs. There just isn't much there and when it ended it almost felt as if I'd seen nothing at all. If this were a drama (which at times I wondered) it could almost be chalked up as a success because it's so character driven and the performances hold your interest. But it's a comedy and in director Miguel Arteta's defense I'm not sure a really good one could have even been made about an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The idea in itself doesn't exactly elicit a wealth of comic possibilities, with the action unfolding not disproving that theory. If someone asked me what this were about, I'd tell them just that: an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. There's some other stuff thrown in that's sort of a mess, yet also very predictable. For huge fans of Ed Helms' Hangover character or those clamoring for an Anne Heche comeback this may do the trick, but otherwise it's a skip.

Nerdy and naive Brownstar Insurance agent Tim Lippe (Helms) has lived a very sheltered life, having never left the small town in which he grew up, to the point where he's carrying on an affair with his former junior high teacher Macy (Sigourney Weaver) who seems far less into it than he. His world gets turned upside down when his co-worker dies in an accident and he's called on by his boss Bill (Stephen Root) to represent the company at the regional conference in Cedar Rapids. The pressure's on for him to make sure they take home the prestigious "Two Diamonds" award, which they've won for the past 3 years but takes on an added importance this time as a victory would help keep the small, struggling firm afloat. A fish out of water in his new hotel surroundings, Tim meets wild man Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) and Ronald Wilkes (The Wire's Isiah Whitlock Jr.), notable only for how normal he is and his obsession with The Wire. He also carries on a romantic fling of sorts with the married, free-spirited Joan (Heche) and gets involved with a prostitute named Bree (Alia Shawkat). Having never been exposed to much of anything before, the newly independent Tim is set loose in Cedar Rapids, having the time of his life but possibly compromising his company's award chances in the process.

I get what writer Phil Johnston is going for in attempting kind of a 40-Year-Old Virgin meets Superbad in the midwest but something got lost on the way to the screen and it doesn't exactly come together like it should. Ed Helms is sufficient in the lead but this is just Dr. Stu Price from Hangover. It's almost literally the same character with very few adjustments made, resulting in him giving the exact same performance as in that film. It's possible Helms has more to offer than that but we certainly won't ever find out if he continues being typecast as the uptight, middle-aged geek who has to come out of his shell. At this rate, he'll turn into the adult Michael Cera. But besides having a predictable story arc, where the movie ultimately misfires is in overestimating how funny this whole scenario (or lack of one) at the hotel really is, especially when these strange people Tim encounters are actually fairly normal, at least from a cinematic standpoint. The ads and commercials would have you believe John C. Reilly is as out of control here as he was in Walk Hard or Step Brothers but through little fault of his own that guy never shows up here and his supposedly sleazy character is stuck in neutral the entire time, never really contributing much in the way of laughs. They keep telling us he's crazy but considering Reilly's playing the part, it's probably up there with some of the more restrained work he's done, which is fine, just not comical in the slightest.

What's so bizarre is that at many points the dialogue seems to mock how boring Cedar Rapids is (except to the wide-eyed protagonist), but if that's the case, why would you set this there, then openly acknowledge that detail in the script?  In a way, it's a strength that the film was confident enough to not go too over-the-top but even when it tries to aim in that direction with Tim going on a drug bender and picking up a prostitute it just feels like something we've seen before in far too many other comedies and doesn't really mix with the material in this one. What surprisingly does work well is the romance, as 90's legend Anne Heche (don't pretend you don't remember Six Days Seven Nights, Volcano, Wag The Dog and Return to Paradise) ends up giving the most charming performance in the film as the loopy, eccentric Joan, reminding us again how she became a star by giving many scenes bite that wouldn't otherwise have any. I also found the Sigourney Weaver sub-plot one of the few laugh-out-loud funny scenarios, but that's unfortunately dispensed with after the opening minutes. Alia Shawkat is pretty much wasted in the thankless hooker role, her screen presence these days serving only to rub salt in the wound that we probably won't get that Arrested Development movie anytime soon, or maybe ever.  

Cedar Rapids is one of those comedies that feature likable, intelligent characters you don't mind spending time with and you're smiling much of the way through, but you end up forgetting you watched it the next day. Or even possibly the next hour. That it comes from the same director as last year's mild creative success Youth in Revolt is ironic considering that film was edgier and had a much sharper script, despite being targeted to a younger age group. This is more of a sophisticated adult comedy, and maybe too much so since most of its laughs come in the first five minutes with the set-up, before resembling a coming-of-middle-age drama for the remainder of its running time. It doesn't misstep much within that framework, but part of the problem could be attributed to so many male-driven comedies revolving around the tired plot point of a man-child having to grow up. Cedar Rapids is a somewhat solid, but needless entry into that genre, proving it's not good enough for a comedy to just be smart when it doesn't bother to also be funny.

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