What Happens in Cedar Rapids...

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 16, 2011

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Heche of a time: Ed Helms, right, and Anne Heche attend an insurance conference at a deluxe motel in Iowa.

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“I am so hungover … big-time beer-shits,” sighs the great John C. Reilly, during a prayer breakfast at a Christian insurance salesmen’s convention. This comes about halfway through Miguel Arteta’s Cedar Rapids, a movie that’s not quite as funny as it seems to think it is, but contains considerable pleasures around the margins.

Daily Show alumni and Hangover-minted movie-star Ed Helms stars as Tim Lippe, the hopelessly arrested, tiresomely square Midwestern boy sent off to a third-rate metropolis for the first time, marveling at deluxe motel accommodations and a high-life never glimpsed in his one-horse town. Tim’s pushing middle age but still comes off as 13 years old, carrying on an affair with his junior high schoolteacher (Sigourney Weaver) who he can’t stop calling, “Miss Vanderhei” … even in bed.

So when Tim’s insurance firm’s superstar (Thomas Lennon) dies from auto-erotic asphyxiation—yes, Phil Johnston’s screenplay is always trying this hard—our local yokel is sent off to where the bright lights and big city meet, presenting the company’s manifesto at some sort of quasi-religious annual convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. With the coveted “Two Diamonds Award” at stake for the insurance biz, can our virginal rube Tim Lippe avoid the omni-present threats of booze, hookers and desultory motel sex?

Cedar Rapids does not begin well. Too much is made of nudnick Tim never having been on a plane before, blissfully unaware of simple credit-card transactions. He’s such a childish imbecile, you’ll wonder how Lippe ever got so far in life without having somebody on hand to tie his shoes for him, and that’s all before he gasps in awe at his luxurious accommodations, just because they smell like chlorine from the pool downstairs.

Director Arteta’s “fish in the barrel, laugh at the hick” motif hits a snag in the second act, however. Tim soon meets his roommates: The Wire ’s Isiah Whitlock Jr. as an uptight closeted homosexual with a penchant for sweaters, and John C. Reilly’s astoundingly vulgar, brilliantly offensive Dean Ziegler. (Call me “Deansie,” Reilly begs, between belches.)

Slapping every back too hard and laughing way too loud at his own unfunny jokes, Deansie is an Arthur Miller character for the Apatow Era. With his bad comb-over hairdo and beer gut jutting outward, Reilly commandeers Cedar Rapids , as the dude who is always up for a party and wants to do more shots, until midnight rolls around earlier than expected, and he totally falls apart … weeping.

An unrecognizable Anne Heche turns up as another colleague of Tim’s, playing all catty and flirty because the safe-space of the convention beats her miserable married life at home. (“What happens in Cedar Rapids stays in Cedar Rapids” might be her personal manifesto.) Adopting all her peers’ swaggering sales-guy mannerisms, Heche hasn’t been so boyishly charming in ages—I honestly didn’t know it was her until halfway through the movie.

Yet Reilly brings the undertow. There’s a horrible sadness to Deansie, who wants to party harder than everybody and spends his mornings staring into a hungover wasteland of diminished expectations. Johnston’s script is penned in the Happy Texas/Little Miss Sunshine vein of inoffensive Sundance-certified trifles, until every time Reilly opens his mouth, often shirtless and disgusting, kicking off a sentence with the likes of: “I think we can all agree that my ex-wife is a miserable fucking cunt-stain who won’t answer my phone calls anymore, but … ”

Wait? Did he just say that? Did that just happen?

Cedar Rapids is too blithe and inoffensive a movie to focus on Deansie’s obvious tragedy. (The film even allows him to light a fart on fire during one of the misguided end-credit outtakes.) Still, Reilly imbues the performance with such lived-in pathos, it’s hard to reconcile Helms’ cartoony, not-of-this-earth central figure with a sidekick cutting so close to the bone.

There’s also Whitlock Jr., who didn’t just play Sen. Clay Davis on The Wire , but also feels the need to mention The Wire not once, not twice, but three times during the movie… eventually doing his own Omar impersonation at the climax. A great in-joke, but overkill is overkill, kids.

Miguel Arteta has helmed a fair amount of pictures, from the icky Chuck And Buck up through last year’s Youth In Revolt , yet I still can’t quite get a handle on where he’s coming from. Cedar Rapids , like Arteta’s other films, is a Sundance Special with a frisson of something slightly more sinister.

Watch Reilly collapse into the motel pool, wearing a trashcan on his head while demanding to be called “R2-D2” and cackling into the abyss, then tell me there’s not something stirring under the surface.

Directors: Miguel Arteta
Starring: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly and Anne Heche
Running time: 86 minutes

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