Most of us live rather ordinary lives, and if there’s one thing we don’t want to see more of in our movies, it’s ordinariness. Why be reminded that the things we do every day don’t make for good entertainment? You know—we who don’t experience extreme trauma, unfailing heroism, or absolute romantic love, but rather take the middle road of generally pleasant scenery. We’re mostly boring.
So it’s with some suspicion that we must face the prospect of Cedar Rapids. Starring Ed Helms—the Daily Show alum who specializes in playing bland, normal-looking guys with secret wild streaks—Cedar Rapids is about a bland, normal-looking guy who discovers his secret wild streak at a convention of insurance agents in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. No way this is going to be sincere, right? It must be one of those gross-out comedies with all the most obvious jokes about middle-class, Midwestern, white guys: their dorky cars meant to look “cool,” their dorky suits meant to appear “chic,” their dorky attempts at sexual conquest. Take two parts The Office, one part The Hangover, mix well with plenty of frat-boy adventures, and you’ll have a low-budget, low-brow comedy sure to reap solid box-office returns.
But Cedar Rapids takes an unexpected detour from its trip to the multiplex and finds itself in art-house theaters—and it’s not entirely out of place.
Director Miguel Arteta has made something of a career out of pleasing films that look into the personal struggles of everyday people. From Chuck & Buck’s low-budget study of arrested development to The Good Girl’s mundane philandering of a check-out clerk (possibly the greatest Jennifer Aniston film ever made), Arteta seems attracted to the kinds of characters and dilemmas we find in our real lives. But how much dramatic or comedic pay-off can you get out of such low-stakes material? Sometimes, not enough, which is probably why Arteta’s last film, 2009’s Youth in Revolt, came and went without impressing itself on anyone’s brain cells. (It starred Michael Cera as an awkward teenager seeking his dream girl—which sounds like every other movie Cera has starred in.)
With Cedar Rapids, Arteta again reaches for a mostly realistic portrayal of a commonplace event: a naive man’s loss of innocence in the brutal world of insurance sales. Yes. That’s it. And it’s a comedy, not some David Mamet-style vivisection of feral competition and naked greed.
Helms stars as Tim Lippe, an insurance agent with BrownStar Insurance of Brown Valley, Wis. He genuinely likes his trade, having started in it as an enthusiastic young man who believed insurance agents to be real-life heroes. He has never left his town or his job, and he clings to his rather limited worldview—though he’s recently expanded it by having an affair with his former seventh-grade teacher, whom he considers to be his “pre-engaged” girlfriend. But Tim experiences even more life-changing events when he must attend an important convention in Cedar Rapids and ensure that his agency once again earns a coveted “Two Diamond” rating, which forces him to make a difficult ethical choice.
At first, Cedar Rapids gets its laughs from Helms’ gee-willikers reactions to the “big” city: his Chevy Cobalt rental car (“Sweet!”), the terrarium-style lobby of the cruddy convention hotel with its the indoor pool (“The whole place smells like chlorine. It’s like I’m in Barbados or something!”). And then come the familiar characters of his fellow insurance agents: the loud buffoon (John C. Reilly), the nerdy professional (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and the voracious cougar (Anne Heche). There’s nothing surprising about any of this, but Arteta manages to avoid making jokes at his characters’ expense—which is unexpected. They may initially seem just like the caricatures you’d meet at such a hotel convention, but as the film progresses, the actors find nuances that make them more sympathetic. By the time Lippe comes to grips with his shattered preconceptions, you might even care about him.
And perhaps that’s the biggest difference between art-house and multiplex; if this were a mass-appeal comedy, the jokes would start and end with how dorky those boring Midwesterners are—basically insulting the very audience that the studio expects to see it. But Cedar Rapids has a much sweeter center than that—Arteta and his cast clearly have affection for the characters they’re portraying. Helms restrains himself from his more typical sitcom overreactions and creates a convincing portrait of a regular guy whose sheltered life has prevented him from really enjoying it.
People like Tim Lippe do exist out there in the “real” world, and they do have interesting stories to tell, even if they’re small ones involving everyday courage.