Cedar Rapids (2011)
Directed by: Miguel Arteta

Premise: A naïve insurance salesman (Ed Helms) attends an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Upon arriving he befriends three other insurance representatives and is confronted by temptation and corruption.

What Works: Cedar Rapids might be described as The Hangover were it written by Alexander Payne. Like Payne’s films, such as Citizen Ruth and Election, Cedar Rapids is a story of flawed people coping with moral and ethical ambiguity. This picture mixes smart storytelling with the kind of hijinks that characterize the adults-behaving-badly trend in contemporary comedy. In the lead role is Ed Helms, who is essentially playing the same kind of character that he played in The Hangover, but Helms is given a level of nuance and complexity that is far beyond anything in The Hangover series or its counterparts. There is a risk to making a protagonist as naïve as Helms’ character is at the opening of this film. Viewers generally want to see themselves in the hero and so making him or her foolish can derail the movie from the start. Naïve characters can also be obnoxious, making it difficult for viewers to enter into the drama. The filmmakers of Cedar Rapids overcome this obstacle; the screenplay makes the character sympathetic and Helms finds just the right tone to play his character, making him human and exposing his naiveté as a flaw born of both fear and good heartedness. The supporting cast that Helms’ character befriends at the convention has a similar complexity. John C. Reilly plays a freewheeling troublemaker who is the foil to Helms’ straight-man, but as is typical in Reilly’s other performances there is also a humanity to the character that makes him more than just an buffoon. Isiah Whitlock Jr. plays another insurance agent who is similar to Helms’ character in his sense of responsibility but he is also jaded and choses to turn a blind eye to corruption. Anne Heche is the love interest for Helms’ character and their relationship provides the movie with some of its best material. Heche’s character is a married woman who conducts affairs while away on business but the movie deals with her sexuality in a fair and evenhanded way that is far more sophisticated than a lot of Hollywood pictures. Each of these characters has clear story turf and while each of them impact Helms’ character by imparting their wisdom they are also impacted by him and his earnest values. The characterization and storytelling allows the film to play out some very funny scenarios while actually getting at something deeper.

What Doesn’t: Cedar Rapids is a little troubling in the ending. The conclusion of the movie works but it retreats from some of the darker implications of the story. This film is about a man who learns to broaden his horizons and cope with a world that is more complicated than he understood it to be. The climax does bring the narrative and themes to a crisis and conclusion but it is all wrapped up very neatly like the ending of television sitcom. As Helms’ character attempts to get on with his life the filmmakers allow him to escape a little too easily from the consequences of his adventures. It is clear that the filmmakers intend Cedar Rapids to be uplifting in that respect but they sacrifice some of the humanity of the movie by softening the ending this way.

DVD extras: Deleted scenes, gag reel, and featurettes.

Bottom Line: Cedar Rapids was released in 2011 and was largely missed, due in part to a very limited theatrical run followed by an inauspicious debut on DVD. But this is a movie worth seeking out, especially for those who enjoyed The Hangover or those who have been frustrated with the meanness of contemporary comedies.  

 

Episode: #441 (June 2, 2013)