' ' Cinema Romantico: Cedar Rapids

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Cedar Rapids

The Ed Helms of "The Office" has always been a little innocent, a little naive, a little too infatuated with ugly sweaters, yet, unbelievably, the Ed Helms of director Miguel Arteta's "Cedar Rapids" is a little more innocent, a little more naive, a little more infatuated with ugly sweaters. He is Phil Lippe, an insurance salesman in the sweet hamlet of Brown Valley, Wisconsin, a place he has never left - that's never - and where he has struck up a relationship with his grade school teacher (Sigourney Weaver, deft) whom he envisions marrying, though it's rather clear her plans differ. The sweetness surrounding Brown Valley is tested, however, when the most prestigious agent at family-oriented Brown Valley Insurance turns out to have a, uh, dark side, and winds up dead of sinful causes.

The Fearsome Foursome.
This is bad because said agent was set to attend the ASMI in Cedar Rapids, Iowa where he had helped his company to reap the coveted Two Diamond Award - representing exemplary service to clients, community and God - four years running. And so his boss (Stephen Root, taking his role in "No Country For Old Men" and lightening it just one octave) sends Phil over Iowa way to wrap up yet another Two Diamond.

Phil is delivered explicit instructions, like keep close contact with soft-spoken, properly-annunciating Ron Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and stay away, whatever the cost, from Dean "Deanzie" Ziegler (John C. Reilly), the AMSI's ultimate wild card. Thus, naturally, Phil finds himself sharing a three person junior suite with Ron and Deanzie before the spectacularly named Joan Ostrowski Fox (Anne Heche, real and ridiculous at once) - "The O Fox!" - joins this insurance proffering rock group on lead vocals. It does not take long for Deanzie and The O Fox, with mostly pointless reluctance from Ron, to get the non-drinking Phil to start tossing back liquor and indulging in misbegotten, illicit adventures which threaten to ruin Brown Valley Insurance's Two Diamond streak. And even if "Cedar Rapids" disappointingly was not actually filmed in Cedar Rapids, well, give the film some mad props for knowing that, yes, in Iowa, right outside the city limits, there is always going to a be a shabby house in the middle of nowhere with a bunk of drunks and druggies listening to really bad heavy metal. (Speaking of which, our little Maeby F√ľnke is all grown up. But you will have to see the movie.)

The influences here are obvious. Phil is essentially Steve Carrell's "The 40 Year Old Virgin" transplanted to the midwest without the virgin tag. It also riffs on the raunchy, buddy nature of "The Hangover", though it's much, much better than the latter, partly because it's not overlong and partly because its humor is less reliant on the obviously crude than on the endearingly unexpected. Consider Ron's impression of "The Wire's" Omar at a crucial juncture ("And I always keeps one in the chamber in case you ponderin'") or the Shakespearean puerile pep talk Weaver gives Phil over the phone, telling him that it's time to finally let go of Brown Center and become a man of the world. And, of course, as any Iowan can tell you, there is no better place to become a man of the world than the city housing the inimitable Five Seasons Center, the arena where any band worth its salt that couldn't get booked at Hilton Coliseum in Ames would play instead during the days of my youth.

Maybe, more than anything, the film's strongest trait is its refusal to let its characters become outright caricatures. Deanzie, for example, in the end proves to be just as much a Dean, this is in part from the writing and in part from the performance. He's an obnoxious, loudmouth a-hole, yes, but makes no attempt to dispute it and stands behind and supports Phil the whole way and while his methods of assisting in Phil's quick maturation may not be the most prudent, well, anyone with good intentions these days should at least be treated as a minor hero. Kinda like Phil who comes to Cedar Rapids, opens his eyes for the first time in his shut-in life and lives, damn it. Give Helms credit for making it feel as if an important lesson, amidst so much madness, is truly learned.

But let's not kid ourselves. The madness is the main point and the madness makes for a rollicking time. Who knew an insurance convention could be so eventful? Just think if they brought the G8 to Cedar Rapids.


Wretched Genius said...

And for anyone who is a huge fan of The Wire (read: everyone who has ever watched The Wire), hearing that Omar line coming from the mouth of Senator Clay Davis is side-splittingly funny.

Ashley Kuehl said...

I saw Prince at the Five Seasons Center.

Nick Prigge said...

Wretched Genius: I wonder if that part was in the script or if he just decided to improvise it and give his own show a little pub.

Ashley: Full confession, I never saw a show at Five Seasons. Not that this means one of my life's great wishes has gone unfulfilled.