The wild, wild Midwest: Fine cast brings comic surprises to ‘Cedar Rapids’
For the last 10 years, American comedy has been passing through a moment in which cunning, ambition, intelligence, and glamour have lost their value. We’re now laughing at the idiots, naïfs, cavemen, fools, nerds, and schlubs who make our television shows, sign our paychecks, or live in our suburbs. NBC has devoted its entire Thursday night lineup to the lunacy of the exceptionally dumb, eccentric, or incompetent. But its shows — even the bad ones, like “Outsourced’’ — along with “Modern Family’’ on ABC are notable for their sideways optimism. They occupy a transitional place between the George W. Bush administration and Barack Obama’s: Even failure is something to believe in.
Were it 60 minutes shorter, “Cedar Rapids’’ would fit seamlessly in NBC’s Thursday lineup. It’s about Midwestern insurance companies vying for a lucrative endorsement from an industry kingmaker. The movie shouldn’t work, yet it does. Nearly all of it revolves around an agent named Tim Lippe, played by Ed Helms, who on “The Daily Show,’’ “The Office,’’ and in “The Hangover’’ cultivated a boob persona that deservedly receives a movie of its own. Tim is a kind of life virgin. He’s never been on a plane or with a woman who wasn’t his newish, freshly divorced older girlfriend (Sigourney Weaver, doing a lot with very little). He doesn’t have a social life and harbors illusions about most of his professional heroes. Needless to say, that all changes.
A mishap at his Wisconsin company, BrownStar Insurance, requires him to represent his bosses at a convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he’s to give a presentation to the very Christian president of the insurance federation (Kurtwood Smith). By sending Tim, who’s never seen a hooker, done a drug, or gotten drunk, the movie ensures that nothing will go smoothly. By casting John C. Reilly as one of the other agents sharing a hotel suite, the movie ensures nothing will go smoothly with maximum boisterousness.
Reilly plays Dean Ziegler, a big and crass man who wants all the pleasure Tim didn’t know he could have. By Midwestern standards, he’s flamboyant. He’s also frequently underdressed and drunk. When Tim and his other roommate, a sharp starch-case named Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) elect not to join Dean for happy hour, he taunts them: “You ladies stay here and do your nails.’’ They wind up going to a bar and are joined by a feisty agent named Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche).
What ensues among them is almost shopworn. They get up to antics that much younger people do in, say, “Superbad’’ the “Harold & Kumar’’ movies, or films with a soundtrack and access to the early 1980s — swimming pool seductions, a raucous house party, speedy vehicular getaways. The novelty is that equally uncool characters in their 50s, 40s, and late 30s can do it, too. (Helms actually looks like an adult Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who played the squeaking hormonal squall, McLovin’, in “Superbad.’’)
Phil Johnston wrote “Cedar Rapids.’’ It’s unclear whether he meant the film as a mockery of Midwestern hedonism or uptightness or satire of Christian hypocrisy. He’s larded the film with broad gags (naked hugs, bad sexual banter, silly speeches) and thinks the color brown is inherently funny. It’s often like a juvenile’s idea of how a square adult life would be. I imagine the director, Miguel Arteta, is the reason the movie succeeds as well as it does. He mutes the obnoxiousness and concentrates on the performances, nearly all of which are excellent and marked by a sense of real camaraderie.
The cast has enough room to escape boxy caricatures. Whitlock, for instance, gets to play something more gratifying than the uptight black guy. He briefly sends up his role as the profanely corrupt state senator on “The Wire.’’ Otherwise, he puts that grin, that whiskeyed baritone, and those beady eyes to less sinister ends. His work here demands a comedy about the life of a black, middle-aged, Midwestern insurance salesman.
Arteta, who directed an episode of “The Office,’’ specializes in applying this sort of actorly polish to patchy scripts, like “The Good Girl’’ and last year’s Michael Cera film “Youth in Revolt.’’ To “Youth’’ he also brought an uncharacteristic whiff of visual exuberance. “Cedar Rapids’’ is a more basic assignment, but it’s enriched by the little touches he applies to his cast, such as when Tim encounters the president of the insurance association naked in the locker room. Yes, it’s that scene. But Helms does something interesting with it. Tim is uncomfortable, but rather than simply remove his towel, he decides to throw it down. It’s a funny defiance of his natural instincts. Helms’s entire performance is a quiet, perfectly pitched marvel. He’s found a way to color in his usual uptightness with true anger, joy, and surprise. He’s not doing a shtick here.
Helms is still on “The Office,’’ and he’s scheduled to inhabit this sort of role at least twice more this year — in a “Hangover’’ sequel and as a lead character in a movie called “Jeff Who Lives at Home.’’ Who knows what kind of shelf life his approach to comedy has? “Cedar Rapids’’ might be recommended if only to see Helms draw from this well before it runs dry.