Directed by Miguel Arteta
In Cedar Rapids, we are given a group of insurance rep misfits that couldn't be any more buffoonish, yet couldn't be any more sincere. There's a certain level of warmth within the people we meet in this wonderful little comedy that make them endearing, even when they're making lewd sex jokes, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, and taking a seemingly wholesome insurance convention and turning it into a smorgasbord of excess. That this occasionally-rambunctious group of miscreants can reach into the audience and develop a seminal wisdom is a revelation I've rarely witnessed in a movie theater.
The film is focused on Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), a Midwestern, forty-something-year-old man who works as an insurance agent at the Brown Valley Insurance Firm that is highly renowned for winning the coveted Two Diamonds award for excellence three years in a row. He lives in a world of befuddling innocence, and his only guilty pleasure is a weekly sex rendezvous with his former grade school teacher, Mrs. V (Sigourney Weaver). After his successful co-worker, Roger (Thomas Lennon), dies in a rather embarrassing fashion, Tim's boss (Stephen Root) picks him to represent the firm at the insurance convention in Cedar Rapids and bring home the Two Diamonds award for the fourth straight year. Tim's not sure if he's ready for this kind of job, but when he gets onto the plane headed for Iowa, he can't hold back his excitement.
When Tim arrives, he befriends three convention veterans. The first one is Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), a soft spoken, eloquent teddy bear of a man who tells jokes that are as unfunny as he is black. Shortly after, he meets Dean "Dean-zy" Zeigler (John C. Reilly), a sharp-tongued, hard drinking troublemaker who quickly pounces on Tim's impishness and defeats all of his inhibitions in only two nights. Lastly, Tim meets Joan (Anne Heche), a married woman who uses the Cedar Rapids convention to free herself from her burdensome family. I'm sure that Joan looks at this weekend as the annual highlight of her sex life, tracking down various opportunities to further forget the suburban life that has forced her into the insurance lifestyle to begin with.
At first, Tim is hesitant to their devilish charms, but when Dean tips Tim off about a petition trying to strip Brown Valley of their Two Diamonds awards, Tim quickly realizes that these three are the only people he has on his side. The ultra-conservative convention is run by Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith), a polished but self-righteous man who insists that God be at the forefront of all insurance companies, but his congenial appearance a much more sinister truth. There's nothing more Dean would like to do than expose Orin and his moral hypocrisy, and when Tim realizes the false virtue of the entire event, he decides to join him. As Tim slowly gets sucked out of his comfort zone, he finally begins to comprehend his self-worth, and Cedar Rapids becomes the greatest ever coming-of-age tale about a man in his forties.
When we look at our cast a protagonists, we have an alcoholic, a television connoisseur, an adulteress, and a man who frequently has sex with a woman thirty years older than him. That these characters coexist is a wonder on its own. That screenwriter Phil Johnston is able to take these people and make them an empathetic, Midwestern Wild Bunch is quite the achievement. This is Tim Lippe's story, but it's their partnership that really sets Cedar Rapids apart from other low-brow comedies of this ilk. We really believe that these people care about each other, that there's a real bond here. That Heche and Reilly play their parts without judgment helps a lot, as Joan and Dean are rather up front with their flaws and their sins, never allowing themselves to be one-note or empty.
The film was directed by Miguel Arteta, of The Good Girl and more recently, Youth In Revolt. We can see early that he has a gift within comedic films, not because of how funny they are (though they are that), but because of his attention to his characters. He never settles for the easy joke; and in the case of most of his films, it would be pretty easy to take a character like Tim Lippe or Dean Zeigler and laugh at him. But Arteta really cares about these people, and it shows. It helps to have some wonderful performances. Helms, always a talented supporting player in comedies like The Hangover and the TV series "The Office", really holds his own as a lead. He plays Tim with such brilliant naivete, we really believe him when he gives Mrs. V a promise ring for, you know, whatever happens. The film is also filled with wonderful small moments and minor characters, particularly a young prostitute named Bree (Alia Shawkat) who sways Tim with her charm and her crack pipe.
They always say that no good films come out in the first four months of the year. They say that because, for the most part, it's true. But Cedar Rapids - an independent film that is still stuck in limited release - is a gem among cobblestones, a truly great comedy filled with romance, fight scenes, and more than one reference to the HBO program, "The Wire". I'll admit that I'm a sucker for low-brow comedies with heart (when they're done well), but I do feel like Cedar Rapids was the first great film of 2011, even if it probably won't develop that reputation. But that's fine, the Tim Lippe's of the world never get the credit they deserve.