Sundance 2011 Review: CEDAR RAPIDS

by: Kate Erbland
February 10th, 2011

Editor's note: This review was originally published on January 24, 2011 as a Sundance Film Festival review.

Rating: 3.5/5

Writer: Phil Johnston
Director: Miguel Arteta
Cast: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr.Sigourney Weaver, Alia Shawkat, Stephen Root, Kurtwood Smith

The fish-out-of-water comedic yarn is always a fun one for the watching - equal parts hijinks hilarity and self-discovery story. In CEDAR RAPIDS, insurance agent Tim Lippe is just that fish – a little fish in a little pond, tossed right into the roaring waters of, well, really a slightly larger pond. But, in any case, these are different waters, mightier waters, and the world’s most average fish (fine, man) has got a lot to learn before he can succeed in Cedar Rapids. It’s the sort of role that star Ed Helms has made his own as of late – a sweet-natured regular Joe who just might have something a little more special lurking deep inside. He does it weekly on The Office, he did it in THE HANGOVER. But can he do it in CEDAR RAPIDS? Handily.

Tim has been in the insurance game since he was sixteen, plucked from a somewhat tragic existence by boss Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root). In Tim, Bill saw someone who was going somewhere until, as he so eloquently puts it, Tim “somehow…just didn’t.” After the untimely (and unseemly) death of Brown Star’s, well, star agent, Thomas Lennon’s Roger Lemke, Tim is dispatched to Cedar Rapids to represent the agency at an annual insurance association conference. At stake? The coveted Two Diamond Award, which Roger brought home three years in a row. Standing in Tim’s way? His fear of displeasing ASMI’s president, a roommate he was warned against (John C. Reilly), a firecracker insurance agent from Nebraska (Anne Heche), and his crippling naïveté.

The people that Tim meets in Cedar Rapids are not the people he knows in small-town Brown Valley – and that includes Tim himself. For Tim, Cedar Rapids represents opportunity and growth, but for everyone else, Cedar Rapids is an excuse to regress and take a vacation from who they are in their everyday lives. The ASMI convention isn’t work – it’s microcosmic Vegas, and what happens in Cedar Rapids stays in Cedar Rapids, and that includes everything from getting tanked at the local bar to waking up half-naked in public. These insurance agents know how to party, and goshdangit, they’re going to do it. How the heck is a nice guy like Tim Lippe going to survive this?

It doesn’t help that there is also most definitely something rotten in the state of ASMI. The association’s president, Orin (Kurtwood Smith), seems to fancy himself a bit of a prophet, with all those mentions of God and higher powers in service to an association that feels just a little too much like a cult. It doesn’t help that Bill is calling him hourly to scream at him. And it definitely doesn’t help that Tim’s “pre-fiancée” seems hellbent on living her own life back in Brown Valley.

Tim falls in with a band of fun-loving fellow agents – including Reilly’s former frat boy Dean (“Call Me Deanzie!”) Ziegler, Omaha’s sauciest insurance-selling lady (Heche’s Joan Ostrowski-Fox), and a mild-mannered agent who speaks in acronyms and whose jokes fall so flat they barely even exist (Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s Ronald Wilkes). They’re all veterans of the ASMI convention, but they’re not there for the Two Diamonds, they are there to get down. When things start going disastrously (read: hilariously) downhill, who the heck can Tim Lippe count on?

CEDAR RAPIDS succeeds thanks to its interesting core of characters, and how well they're handled. Another actor would have made Tim too silly or insecure; another writer might have written Dean as too harsh; another director might have overlooked the importance of a smaller character like Ronald. But CEDAR RAPIDS is always cohesive and honorable to its characters. Everyone in CEDAR RAPIDS could fall right into caricature, but they’re all colored with enough touches to make them both funny and real, human and hilarious. This isn’t just convention-goers gone wild, it’s a surprisingly believable story about regular people and regular lives, tilted just enough outside their norms to try something new.

However, CEDAR RAPIDS falters when it tries to drag Tim down a very well-tread path. In its last third, the film veers out of Cedar Rapids, and straight into HANGOVER City. Not content to let things unfold within the confines of the conference’s hotel homebase, the film sends Tim on a misfire of a bender, including a detour to one of Iowa’s most filthy abandoned homes, classically perfect for such soirees as a methhead gathering of tattooed knuckleheads. After the organic changes and laughs of the scenes that came before, it’s disheartening and distracting to watch Tim get shunted into some wacky “good times” just because, it seems, the director and writer thought the expected would serve the film better than the smaller, smarter film they had up to that point.

CEDAR RAPIDS clocks in at just under and hour and a half, and the comedy clips right along. The film also succeeds in packing in a bevy of small and amusing touches – from tongue-in-cheek nods to Roger’s real cause of death, to Tim’s fundamentally embarrassing travel accessories, the film is a winner in finding details and laughs in the little things. That graceful humor is why it feels so strained and strange when the films adds run-of-the-mill misadventures to a quirky, clever film that, at least for most of its runtime, worked so amusingly well.

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