by Steve Habrat
Comedian Ed Helms is such a talented guy, it’s hard not to just love him. The guy can sing, dance, play instruments, and do comedy with the best comedians out there. Take 2011’s Cedar Rapids, an uproariously funny comedy decked out in earth tones and Dockers. Cedar Rapids is Helms’s first starring comedy that truly does his talent justice and doesn’t demand he resort to a string of dick jokes like The Hangover asks of him. This project also proves that Helms can do the heavy lifting and lead a film from beginning to end. A much smaller film than his Hangover franchise, Cedar Rapids is a smaller and downright friendlier project that, yes, still has the same old bawdy jokes, but it is much more earnest and cordial, with direction that is much more mature and almost old fashioned. With Cedar Rapids, Helms comes out with his pride still in one piece and in the process, we learn that he has serious chemistry with man-baby John C. Reilly, leaving us begging for another project where the lax Reilly can torment the uptight Helms.
Cedar Rapids picks up the small, sleepy town of Brown Valley, Wisconsin, where we meet mild mannered Tim Lippe (Played by Helms), a sheltered and uptight insurance salesman. We learn that Tim has never really left his hometown and ventured out into the real world. He is pre-engaged to his 7th grade teacher Macy Vanderhei (Played by Sigourney Weaver) and he dedicates himself fully to the small insurance company he is employed at. When Lippe is given the opportunity to travel to Cedar Rapids to represent his company, Brownstar Insurance, at a regional conference and bring how the coveted Two Diamonds award, he graciously accepts and prepares for his trip to the big city. When he arrives in Cedar Rapids, he meets party animal Dean Ziegler (Played by Reilly), sexy red head Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Played by Anne Heche), and monotone Ronald Wilkes (Played by Isiah Whitlock Jr.). As Tim begins to lighten up and have fun, pressure from his boss Bill (Played by Stephen Root) begins getting the best of Tim, Bill demanding that Tim bring home the Two Diamond award any way he can. But Dean soon brings new information to Tim, sparking the group to suspect how honestly the Two Diamond awards are won.
The running joke of Cedar Rapids is the idea that Tim is an insurance salesman who refuses to take any major risks. He stays on a straight, safe path and if anything disrupts that order, Tim becomes a heaving, stammering mess who refuses to curse. He is always at odds with the nothing-is-off-limits Dean, who urges Tim to lighten up every chance he gets. When Tim does cut loose, he over compensates for living such a sheltered existence. He parties with a free-spirited prostitute Bree (Played by Alia Shawkat), doing hard drugs and heavy drinking. He also sparks up a romantic relationship with Joan, who has a secret of her own. Most importantly, Tim learns he has options, something that never revealed itself until he steps out of his safe zone, Brown Valley. It is also when Tim is shaken out of his naivety that the true colors of those around him sweep through their out shells.
Is it too much to ask that we get a sequel to Cedar Rapids? Every single member of the cast seems to be at home in their roles. You’ll die laughing when Dean makes Tim squirm out of discomfort. You’ll howl when Ronald babbles on about The Wire and does his impersonations. And how about Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat playing a bad girl prostitute with a wild streak? I wanted more of the romance between Tim and Joan, an onscreen couple who go together like peanut butter and jelly. It is always a treat when the director knows that their cast has great chemistry and he lets them go. Director Miguel Arteta allows his cats to guide the film, making his job almost effortless. Arteta does make Cedar Rapids into a bit of a celebration of the little guy. He mirrors this in his choice of the little guy Helms, who always seems pushed to the supporting role. Yet his film is a round of applause for the small, family owned business, the small, sheltered hero, and the rag tag group who has to pull together to prevail.
Even though Cedar Rapids is a smaller film, it never falls victim to the “Garden State syndrome”, ya know, the one where the film features crude illustrations for the opening credit sequence, there is Napoleon Dynamite style humor sprinkled throughout, and there are countless indie rock bands (The Shins, Belle & Sebastian, etc.) strumming their acoustic guitars on the soundtrack. While Cedar Rapids maintains its indie cred with the small scope and a slew of offbeat actors, you never feel like you need to be wearing horn rimmed glasses and skinny jeans to really appreciate it. You never get the sense that the film gives off the vibe that it is too cool to be viewed by you. In fact, Cedar Rapids in almost dorky! This makes falling for this film even easier, because it lacks all the glitz and glamour of a mainstream comedy. It really is the comedy next door.
Cedar Rapids is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.