Cedar Rapids – Red State Hijinks

Country: United States
Genre: Comedy
Director: Miguel Arteta
Year: 2011

Rating: ★★★½☆


Not too many films are made about Red State folks, and on the rare occasions when Hollywood deigns to examine the lives of denizens of the flyover states, the tendency is to be condescending and exaggerate social tendencies to the point of caricature.

To some extent, that’s true of Cedar Rapids, too, but at least screenwriter Phil Johnston and director Miguel Arteta have grounded their tale in recognizable reality.

Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is an insurance agent, born and raised in a small town in Iowa, who hasn’t ventured more than twenty miles outside the city limits. He’s a complete naif, so when his boss Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root) insists he attend a convention in Cedar Rapids to compete for the coveted Two Diamond award, Tim is terrified.

Helping Tim get over his jitters are his two roommates at the hotel in Cedar Rapids, blowhard Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) and token “negro” Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), as well as Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), who married too young and uses these conventions to let loose a little.

Tim’s major obstacle to winning the Two Diamond award is Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith), a bible-thumping family values kind of guy.

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this basic setup, but occasionally the exaggeration gets out of hand. Did Tim really need to come off like an eight year old, as my wife observed? For example, when he’s in bed with his former 6th grade teacher Macy Vanderhei (the wonderfully wry Sigourney Weaver), Tim gives her a replica of a stuffed bird she used to have in her classroom with a ring shoved over its wing, proclaiming they’re now pre-engaged. Oh, come on! It’s one thing to be naive. It’s another thing to be almost 40 years old and behave like you haven’t shaved yet.

John C. Reilly also exaggerates his blowhard character, not as much as Ed Helms, but enough to be distracting.

Now mind you, Cedar Rapids is often laugh out loud funny, but the laughs would have been deeper if the film had hewed closer to reality.

That said, screenwriter Phil Johnston’s plotting and basic characterizations are first rate. He has come up with a number of intriguing situations and characters which are inherently comical and director Miguel Arteta expertly exploits them.

I probably shouldn’t be so hard on Cedar Rapids. It’s hard these days to get a reality based comedy past the Hollywood bean counters. My guess is the filmmakers compromised, pushing the comedy too hard in order to capture the knucklehead mainstream viewers, but including enough anthropological observations to satisfy themselves.

The result is a film that will amuse discerning viewers, with some reservations, but still allow chuckleheads to get in on the joke.

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