Anne Heche and Ed Helms in Cedar Rapids

In the moment, comedies generally live or die by how funny they are. If a movie makes you laugh, it’s a hit and there’s no right or wrong about it. Miguel Arteta’s Cedar Rapids is a little different. It delivers modest laughs (your results may vary), but at the same time it deploys a surprising sweetness and a refreshing lack of irony that elevate it well above the usual slob comedy.

Promoted from his usual sideman status, Ed Helms offers a more innocent version of the clueless dork he played in The Hangover and on TV’s The Office. Here he’s Tim Lippe, a 30-something man-child on the bottom rungs of the insurance sales ladder in the kind of tiny Wisconsin town where everyone knows everyone else. When the office hero suddenly dies under less than savory circumstances on the eve of the big insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, naive straight arrow Tim is recruited to go instead in an effort to rehabilitate the image of Brownstar Insurance and win the coveted Two Diamond rating for the 4th year in a row. There he inevitably gets caught between the nerdy Ronald (The Wire’s Isiah Whitlock, Jr. “Sheeeeeit”), the slob Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) who is still sewing his wild oats well passed middle age, and the jaded Joan (Anne Heche) who uses the yearly convention as an opportunity to recapture some of her pre-motherhood carefree life. What follows is a series of increasingly debauched misadventures as Tim is pulled further and further down the moral sewer pipe.

While most of the comic mileage comes from Tim being found in compromising positions and while the screenplay repeatedly walks right up to the line of mocking him, it surprisingly never crosses over. In the end, it’s got you rooting for Tim and his unsullied decency to win the day. Though it’s a cynical world in which he finds himself, Tim is allowed a surprising dignity and this is what gives the movie its winning and well-earned heart and what finally lifts it above the ordinary comedy it easily could have been.

Another key is the chemistry between Helms and his co-stars. Each of the supporting characters is more than just a set up for a punch line. Whitlock makes the most of his chance to play a much different character than the sleazy pol he played on The Wire, while Reilly is in is wheelhouse as a somewhat dimwitted pig. The nicest surprise however is Anne Heche who mixes a weariness with a sexy playfulness. I can’t remember the last time Heche had such an engaging part and she delivers. Most importantly, all three supporting characters are humanized with their own stories and inner lives. Together with Helms, they form an odd but ultimately likable team. Meanwhile, Alia Shawkat (TV’s Arrested Development) has a small but funny role as a hooker with a heart made of something that isn’t quite gold and Sigourney Weaver shines as Tim’s divorcee girlfriend who also happens to be his 7th grade teacher.

If you’re expecting a laugh-a-minute, pants pissingly uproarious comedy from Cedar Rapids – the kind you might anticipate based on the setup – you’re liable to come away disappointed. But if you’re in the mood for a healthy series of chuckles with some genuine feeling and sweetness at the core, it hits the spot.

Cedar Rapids. USA 2010. Directed by Miguel Arteta. Screenplay by Phil Johnston. Cinematography by Chuy Chavez. Music score composed by Christophe Beck. Edited by Eric Kissack. Starring Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Stephen Root, Kurtwood Smith, Alia Shawkat, Rob Corddry, Mike O’Malley and Sigourney Weaver. 1 hour 27 minutes. MPAA rated R for crude and sexual content, language and drug use. 4 stars (out of 5)

8 Responses to “Cedar Rapids (2011)”

  1. Well, the four-star rating seems to indicate it worked far better than it would originally had you believe. God we do need a good comedy (they are so rare) and especially at this dry window of movie going, which as a general rule only perks up in April or so. I did like Ms. Holefcener’s last film, but you’ve related you weren’f much of a fan. The actors here are a distinguished lot, so the proper chemistry is in place. Excellent piece.

  2. I’m hoping this is good; comedy is just the ticket now. Manohla Dargis raved it in the Times today too.

  3. Just don’t go into it expecting to bust a gut laughing. It’s just not that kind of comedy.

    It’ll depend too on how much or little you like Helms and his character.

  4. Excellent review from Ms. Dargis and she identifies the best scene when Tim is explaining to jaded Joan why he became an insurance agent.

  5. A friend of mine saw this recently — with the screenwriter and maybe the director there as well — and said it was quite good. He also said it was a good revival role for Heche.

  6. Heche was the big surprise for me in this. I was never against her per se, but she stopped being “someone to watch” awhile ago. She brought a nice depth to her character who at first just seems kind of shallow and stupid.

    I have to say, I’m liking this movie more and more the further I get from it. It might not be super-consequential in the end, but it’s solid and worth seeing.

  7. Craig, I just got in from my Edgewater multiplex, where I saw the film with Lucille, Melanie, Danny, my two McCartney cousins and a friend, Andrei.

    All of us laughed our asses off for the 90 minute running time. In large measure I agree with you and even went with an extra half star!

  8. Sam I’m a little surprised you fell for this one. You just never know how one person or another is going to respond to comedy, but I’m glad you saw the good in it.

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