Friday, March 18, 2011

Cedar Rapids: Droll undercurrents

Cedar Rapids (2011) • View trailer for Cedar Rapids
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, crude humor, sexual content and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.18.11

Mark Twain’s innocents abroad never had it this rough.

Tim Lippe is a small-town guy through and through: an unsullied soul who seems quite content to remain within the sheltering boundaries of tiny Brown Valley, Wis. He sells peace of mind as an agent for locally based BrownStar Insurance, and he’s good at it; people trust his utterly sincere face — which is genuine, not a calculated façade — and acknowledge the wisdom of dealing with somebody who resides no more than a few blocks away.
Although Joan (Anne Heche) insists that Tim (Ed Helms, center right) shouldn't
have any trouble with an indoor climbing competition, our hero is far from
convinced. And once he's 20 feet off the ground, he'll naturally do the opposite
when some helpful soul warns him not to look down...

Tim lives alone in the house where he grew up, and seems content to do so. In the manner of an honest, guileless individual who lacks cynicism and fancies himself a moral clean spirit, he doesn’t miss what he can’t imagine. Whatever the greater world holds, somewhere Out There, he genuinely couldn’t care less. This isn’t a guy who lives vicariously through his Netflix subscription; he probably peruses nothing more progressive than Readers Digest.

But then ... disaster.

When a BrownStar colleague dies suddenly under eyebrow-raising circumstances — the details of which Tim refuses to contemplate — our sheltered adult waif is ordered to take the guy’s place at the industry’s annual ASMI convention in the free-wheeling, hothouse atmosphere of ... wait for it ...

Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Instant panic attack.

Indie director Miguel Arteta’s Cedar Rapids starts slowly, almost somnambulantly, but gradually builds its way into the sort of hilarious, full-out raunchy comedy that the Farrelly brothers wish they could make, but haven’t near the talent — or artistic sensibilities — to pull off. But while Arteta deserves the credit for tone and pacing, and for encouraging precisely modulated performances from his talented ensemble cast, the true hero of the moment is screenwriter Phil Johnston.

You’d never know it from Johnston’s few credits: a couple of shorts and a forgettable made-for-TV sci-fi comedy. But he must’ve been shopping the script for Cedar Rapids around, because he made Variety’s 2009 list of “10 screenwriters to watch,” an accolade he clearly deserves. Cedar Rapids makes excellent use of a successful comedy’s essential ingredients: a simple yet captivating premise, well drawn characters, funny but wholly credible plot hiccups, and — most important — a solid moral center that allows us to root for the protagonist.

Not to mention a pitch-perfect performance from star Ed Helms, cast as poor, beleaguered Tim. The long-time veteran of TV’s The Office got his big screen break with 2009’s The Hangover, and knew just what to do with it. His work here in Cedar Rapids merely illustrates the obvious: Helms knows how to carry a starring role.

And it’s not an easy part. Too much clowning, too much infantile behavior, and Tim would devolve into the sort of man-child caricature that Will Ferrell has turned into such a tiresome cliché. Alternatively, too much aggressive compensation — too large a dose of the inner wild child encouraged to escape during this life-changing ASMI weekend — and Tim would cease to be sympathetic.

The key is balance, and Helms nails it. Even at his silliest, stodgiest and most ludicrously naïve, Tim projects an underlying sweetness that can’t be ignored; he invariably wins over the characters in this story, just as he wins our hearts and minds. Thus, when Tim is shocked to discover that he’s sharing a hotel room with, gasp, an African American fellow, the moment doesn’t seem the slightest bit racist, because we already know Tim isn’t that way. One simply gets the impression that he’s genuinely surprised, because Brown Valley probably doesn’t have many people of color.

Arteta, similarly, could have ruined that scene — and made it wincingly offensive — with clumsy handling. But no, it’s smooth as silk, not to mention a hilarious introduction to fellow insurance agent Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr., amusingly formal).

Although the convention setting ostensibly is one of those corporate get-togethers intended to foster bonding via groaningly dumb activities such as scavenger hunts and motivational seminars, the industry veterans understand the gathering’s true purpose: to suck up to condescending ASMI head honcho Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith), who views family-values probity as the key to an insurance agent’s success.

Agents from the 50 or so companies attending the convention are currying Helgesson’s favor in the hopes of winning the coveted “Two Diamond Award,” an honor BrownStar has secured for three consecutive years, and which Tim’s boss (Stephen Root, appropriately hard-nosed) wants a fourth time.

Some of the attendees, therefore, are willing to stop at nothing during the weekend’s “harmless” activities; others couldn’t care less about competitive spirit and are present solely to cut loose and have a good time. The latter include the sexually charged Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), a good-time gal with a mouth as filthy as any guy, and Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), determined to out-raunch her at every opportunity.

Indeed, Ziegler’s the one person Tim’s boss warned him to avoid. Naturally, when the convention proves a mite too successful, in terms of attendance, Dean becomes Tim and Ronald’s third roommate. Let the seduction of the innocent begin...

Except that it isn’t quite that simple, of course. Tim isn’t entirely innocent — having a rather unusual, ah, girlfriend back home — and Dean, loud-mouthed appearances notwithstanding, isn’t the moral reprobate of legend. A few scenes in, and Reilly lets us see the sad guy within, who covers his vulnerability by trying too hard to live up to the reputation expected of him.

Johnston’s script is sharp with little details that deliver payoffs in the third act, once Tim’s previously safe and conventional life has spun wholly out of control. Take note of Ronald’s hobbies, when he talks about himself a bit; you’ll be able to anticipate the outcome of an extracurricular party that poor Tim gets sucked into, when he unwisely accepts an invitation from the hotel’s resident hooker (sultry Alia Shawkat, well remembered from TV’s Arrested Development and big-screen supporting roles in Whip It and The Runaways).

I don’t want to detail any of Tim’s additional misadventures, because the fun comes from the poor guy’s sense of discovery — of the world’s temptations, and his reaction to same — and the marvelous way Helms handles his starring role. His comic timing is impeccable, and Johnston’s script gives him a meaty, multi-layered role to work with.

And don’t exit the theater too quickly; the closing credits unspool against a few additional scenes that serve as a welcome epilogue to the story’s climax.

Arteta understands the proper approach to adult humor, in the true sense of the term, and as contrasted against gross, infantile swill like Hall Pass. Reilly’s character here is every bit as filthy as anybody in a Farrelly brothers flick, but the essential difference is that Reilly’s Dean Ziegler feels like a real human being, rather than an exaggerated freak. We therefore identify with him more deeply, as is true of every character in this story, and that makes the film itself have a stronger — and more pleasantly memorable — impact.

Not that difficult a formula, really. Too bad more filmmakers can’t grasp that fact.

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