MacGuffin Film Review – Cedar Rapids

Film Review – Cedar Rapids

Cedar Rapids (2011) tells the story of a naïve insurance agent put into a situation that is way over his head. Directed by Miguel Arteta, whose previous work includes The Good Girl (2002) and Youth in Revolt (2009), the film is a quirky combination of the dirty and the sweet. There are a number of crude and raunchy scenes and jokes, but at the same time there is an odd sense of warmness, a kind-heartedness that runs throughout. Although I didn’t quite buy the reality of it, I did find myself laughing out loud at the rawness of its comedy, while being surprisingly engrossed by the honest relationships between its main characters.  Imagine eternal good guy James Stewart telling you the dirtiest joke you’ve ever heard, and you’d be getting somewhere close.

Whether or not the film works lies entirely on its main actor, and here that man is Ed Helms, whom you’d probably recognize from The Daily Show, The Office, and of course The Hangover (2009). Helms has always been good at playing characters that are by the book, that have a level of earnestness even though what they are saying may be the most ludicrous thing you’ve ever heard. I can see why he was cast to play the lead role of Tim Lippe, who is probably the most naïve, inexperienced man you’ll see in the movies. He’s never been on a plane, he’s never been in a hotel, he’s never been outside of Brown Valley, Wisconsin, he carries a money belt inside of his shirt, and he thinks an airport rental car is the coolest thing in the world.

This is a very difficult role to play; it’s hard to believe that a character like this would realistically not have experienced all the things that Tim has missed out on. Helms does an admirable job attempting to give him a dose of reality, and sometimes it works—but sometimes it doesn’t. We find Lippe being chosen by his boss to represent their company branch at an annual insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he must win an award to secure the future of his job. Tim walks into the hotel as wide-eyed as a boy walking into candy store, and this is where I felt the character crossed the line a bit. Tim is such an emotionally green man-child that, although he has some very funny “fish out of water” scenes, he does come across as somewhat over the top. Yes, the warmness and likability are there, but it would have been nice if this character were little more down to earth, a little more realistic within this world. I mean, can you honestly believe that a guy in his mid-thirties would go gaga over something like a hotel having an indoor swimming pool?

Almost immediately, Tim’s plans to win the award are derailed by the other agents that he meets. These people include Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a brash, loud mouth agent who’s been to these conventions one too many times and has looked forward not so much to the events on the itinerary but rather the nearby bars to party hardy. Just like Helms’ take on Tim, John C. Reilly has an equally difficult task to play a character that is supposed to be over the top. Dean Ziegler is a coarse, scene-chewing caricature, and Reilly puts his all into this performance. Yes, there are moments when Ziegler looks like a character straight out of a high-school sex romp, but it’s better to see an actor try to hit a home run with his work, instead of settling for first base. The second agent Tim runs into is Joan Ostrowski-Fox, a redheaded ball of energy played by Anne Heche. Joan reminds me a lot of Vera Farmiga’s character in Up in the Air (2009), but perhaps in a better and more realistic way. Instead of Alex Goran’s hidden secrets, Joan lays everything out on the table, and leaves it to others to either take it or leave it. The last agent, but certainly not the least, is Ronald Wilkes, played by Isiah Whitlock, Jr. Ronald is the most level-headed character of the entire film, a simple man of simple wants, but one who is always dependable when you need him. In a great meta performance, Whitlock gets the biggest laugh by letting it be known that he does an excellent impression of Omar from the HBO program The Wire.

The plot of the film is really its weakest point. The storyline sprawls around loosely; we find the characters in situations that are not connected together very well. At one point, the four of them are having drinks at a bar; the next, they find themselves at a party with Tim doing drugs and making out with a prostitute. The thread involving Tim exposing the convention and its head (Kurtwood Smith) for what they really are is also fairly weak, and the climax of the film was…well…anticlimactic. If you’re looking for the film to be a statement for the insurance world, then you’ve come to the wrong place. Instead, what makes the film work is the dynamic between these four unlikely characters. Each of them has their own kind of uniqueness; you wouldn’t think that they would ever possibly associate with one another. But somehow, Arteta was able to craft the dynamic between these people so that we completely buy in to their relationships. The moments they have together are very funny, sincere, and surprisingly warm-hearted. Although they have just met each other, each of them sees the good in the others, and is willing to take some risks to watch the other person’s back. This is a well-made, imperfect kind of movie, containing a lot of laughs and heart despite its weaknesses—and perhaps that is the very reason for each charm.

Final Grade: B-

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