Cedar Rapids is a nice movie. It’s a nice movie about a nice guy full of nice characters and nice jokes. And, like a young lady deciding whether or not to date a nice boy, your enjoyment of Cedar Rapids will depend on whether niceness on it’s own is enough to truly get you excited.
First off, Cedar Rapids has a lot of wins in its corner before the film even starts. It is the first lead role for Ed Helms (The Office, The Hangover), who is supported by a cast of strong ensemble players (if you’re a fan of the website Stuff White People Like this cast boasts a SWPL hat trick, with performers from The Daily Show, Arrested Development AND The Wire). Cedar Rapids is directed with confident understatement by Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl, Youth In Revolt, episodes of Freaks & Geeks and Six Feet Under). Heck, even the score is provided by Buffy The Vampire Slayer composer Christophe Beck. That’s one stacked team.
Like it’s protagonist, Tim Lippe (Helms), Cedar Rapids is easy to root for. The film wastes no time setting us up: Lippe is an insurance agent in the tiny town of Brown Valley, Wisconsin. He loves his job, is hugely invested in a casual relationship with his boyhood teacher (Sigourney Weaver), and has never left his hometown. But when he must fill in at the big ASMI Insurance Convention, it’s up to Tim to strap on his traveler’s money belt and fly to the bustling metropolis of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
In the movie’s favour, Ed Helms proves himself a capable and winning lead. He takes a role that could easily turn into a naïve and thankless caricature, and invests it with so much earnest charm and boyish likeability that we cannot help but root for him until the very end. The filmmakers obviously have a great affection for Tim, and treat his wide-eyed wonder at the “big city” with respect, rather then mockery.
At the convention Tim meets his unlikely pals and the movie shifts into… well, not high gear. Second gear? Yeah, second gear. Professional comedy second banana John C. Reilly plays Dean Ziegler, the self-proclaimed party animal of the ASMI Insurance Convention. Reilly excels at this type of “lovable disaster” character, and here he brings a spark of unpredictable energy to his scenes. Isiah Whitlock Jr. (smooth-talking Senator Clay Davis of the aforementioned The Wire) plays Tim’s buttoned-down roommate Ronald, and manages to score a few memorable moments (most notably at the house party). Finally, Anne Heche* (Men In Trees, the 1990s) plays the wily and wry Joan, who makes it her mission to bring Tim out of his shell. Heche maintains a casually flirtatious air that fits her naturally dry sense of humour. Look to a scene where she receives a pressing phone call for a sweetly subtle character moment, which Heche sells nicely.
Within the first 10 minutes Tim is checking in at the hotel, but even before this I encountered the movie’s least endearing habit. The twist that forces Tim to attend the convention happens off-screen, and is explained to Tim by his boss (played by Stephen Root, who is just the best. Period). But by simply describing what happened, rather than showing us, the movie sucks the air right out of the reveal. It also chooses to move on quickly, without stopping to develop any truly meaty jokes. Like I said, Cedar Rapids is a nice movie, charming and amusing, but rarely big-time laugh out loud funny. This tendency to have characters discuss or describe major plot developments and motivations, rather than having the audience experience them, repeatedly weakens potential comedic moments. This movie’s script, provided by first-time screenwriter Phil Johnston, is short on show, but all too long on tell.
Overall, the tone of this film can best be described as “endearing realism”. Every one of the characters, even Reilly’s loudmouth, seems like a person you could probably know in your own life. The stakes of the movie are never very high; an intentional choice that gives the movie real sweetness but limits it’s potential for humour. All of the jokes seem like jokes that real people would make, and as a result never achieve the kind of madcap energy that the trailer suggests. Seriously, if you plan to see Cedar Rapids, do not watch the trailer first. Most of the jokes shown represent the absolute climaxes of various scenes, and the assorted one-liners left over generally pale in comparison.
Cedar Rapids is an enjoyable and winning movie, script problems and misleading trailer aside. But by aiming to play it low-key all the way, it simply ends up underplaying its entire hand. Its not a balls-out “grown man discovers his inner lunatic” comedy (ala Old School), nor is it a touchingly-observed piece of comedy/drama (like, say, Sideways). It ultimately aims for somewhere between those two, but ends up being just… nice.
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