Film review by: Witney Seibold
Many recent R-rated comedies – and Judd Apatow may be responsible for this – are about a certain breed of maturity-averse man-children, who must, through a horrible upending of their usual comforting lifestyle (the introduction of a pregnancy, upcoming nuptials, the grind of everyday marriage), must learn to grow up for realsies. Whether or not that is indicative of this generation’s personally enforced self-infantalization is an issue I will leave for another time. I will say that Miguel Arteta’s comedy “Cedar Rapids” seems to do us one better with his lead character Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) who is a grown adult so childish and socially arrested, that he borders on mental illness. Luckily, he only skirts the border of being truly deficient, remaining safely in the “socially awkward” plane, and never teetering into that “functionally retarded” place so comfortably inhabited by Homer Simpson, or any rom-com character Adam Sandler plays.
Part of the reason the film works so well is because Ed Helms plays Tim Lippe as such a feckless innocent, packed with aw-shucks likability. Had Tim Lippe been a noisy and abrasive asshole who, despite it all, won in the end, “Cedar Rapids” would have been insufferable. Thanks to its tact, the film succeeds as a very funny comedy.
Tim Lippe lives in a tiny, tiny town in Minnesota, where he works as an insurance salesman. He is polite, gregarious, and well-loved by his clients. He is valued by his boss. He is, by all definitions and appearances, a bland, milquetoast human being. He is having an illicit affair with his ex-elementary-school teacher (Sigourney Weaver), and while she’s made it clear that this is a no-strings sexual affair, he’s in wuv. When his company’s star employee (Thomas Lennon) unexpectedly dies, Tim’s boss (Stephen Root) sends him to Cedar Rapids, IA to win a prestigious local award for his company. It may be tempting to laugh at the small-town backwardness of all this (and indeed the hefty significance of a town like Cedar Rapids, IA, but, again, the film stays on this side of the fence, making sure these things feel important to the characters).
In Cedar Rapids, Tim meets Ronald (Isaiah Whitlock, Jr.) who is just as gregarious and square, but actually possesses some character. He meets the flirty Joan (Anne Heche), a married woman who lives by a What-Happens-in-Cedar-Rapids-Stays-in-Cedar-Rapids attitude, and is clearly on the prowl. And, most notably he meets the overgrown fratboy Dean (John C. Reilly), about whom he has been warned; Dean is a hard-drinking, noisy prankster, ready to corrupt an innocent soul like Tim. As the day for The Big Speech approacheth, hijinks ensue, including unexpected affairs, bouts of heavy-drinking vice, and a detour to the dirty, drug-addled house party of the town’s only prostitute (Alia Shawkat).
The Innocent-Finds-Redemption-through-Vice genre often sits poorly with me. I always prefer to see people who are passionate and talented succeeding over odds because of their talents and passions, rather than someone needing to be “corrupted” in order to mature. It’s typically a matter of how much the film can make us feel for the lead characters; if we like them and don’t feel they are being too badly hurt, then we root for the innocent in the arms of vice. Luckily, “Cedar Rapids” is just tactful enough, and Ed Helms is just likable enough, that we do root for him. When we see him smoking crack and partying down for the first time in his life, we actually see it as perhaps a bad idea, but at the very least a new experience for him. This is not a hyuck-hyuck object lesson.
By the end, it’s Tim’s very geniality that wins him the day, and not his willingness to compromise. And indeed, Dean softens, Joan reveals her true dilemmas, and Ron displays his true talents. This is a comedy that poses as an aloof and stylish exercise in mockery, and ends up on our good sides. Top hole.