Repost: Review of Cedar Rapids

I’m reposting the review of Cedar Rapids I originally wrote at Sundance, now that it’s in theaters (at least in these cities). When I wrote it, I worried all the festival spectacle would keep me from being able to write a fair review. But my girlfriend dragged me to it again over the weekend, and if anything, it was better than I remembered. John C. Reilly is a God.

Cedar Rapids: Another Miguel Arteta comedy stupid people won’t get

Before I start my review of Cedar Rapids, I thought, in the interests of diversity, I’d share the review I overheard from the two old guys standing next to me on the bus coming back from the theater.

OLD GUY 1: That black guy was hysterical!  When he was doing those jokes about The Wire?

OLD GUY 2:  The black guy was in The Wire?

OLD GUY 1:  Yeah!  He was like the second biggest cop on The Wire!

OLD GUY 2: Oh yeah, he was great.  And you know Anne Hetch’s character, she reminded me of that Vera Fegamo, when she played the traveling salesman in that one movie?  Aw Christ, what was it called…

(No one says anything.  “…Up in the Air?” I offer.)

OLD GUY 2:  Yeah! Up in the Air!  She reminded me of Vera Fegamo in that.

Long story short, they liked it.

And so did I.  Despite direction by Miguel Arteta, whose last film, Youth In Revolt made my 2010 top 10 list, I didn’t know if I would.  The trailer makes it look like a sort of slapsticky, desperately quirky romp in the vein of Dinner for Schmucks, with Ed Helms playing the Steve Carell role of schmucky rube.  It isn’t that. Quirky, sure, but it takes pains to make the characters real people and not retarded cartoons. Yes, Cedar Rapids is a mainstream comedy.  But it’s a mainstream comedy in the original sense of the description, before “mainstream comedy” meant “pandering drivel for idiots,” when having a sweet message and a character who says “buttf*ck” weren’t mutually exclusive.

Ed Helms plays dorky, struggling insurance agent Tim Lippe, who’s never left his hometown of Brown Valley, Wisconsin (HAHA, GOOD ONE, GUYS, WHY NOT ‘BUTTHOLE, IDAHO’, LOL).  Then, one day, (*RECORD SCRATCH*) his branch’s star salesman (Thomas Lennon of Reno 911) dies in a tragic masturbation accident, leaving Tim to represent the company in a do-or-die presentation at the annual convention in Cedar Rapids, that debaucherous den of sin and infamy (they call it “The City of Five Seasons”, because they have all the regular ones, plus an extra in which to go whorin’ without your family knowing about).  After his first ride on a plane, Lippe meets party-girl soccer mom Joan (a disturbingly-hot-as-a-redhead Anne Heche), foul-mouthed blowhard Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly, in his best role since Dr. Steve Brule), and buttoned-up black dude Ronald (Isiah Whitlock, Jr., aka The Wire‘s Senator Clay Davis), and it becomes a buddy comedy.  Look, I’m not here to argue that the sheltered, goofy dork isn’t one of the most overused characters in comedy, but Ed Helms plays it better than anyone, and takes it beyond cliché.  He might be the most absurdly likable guy in Hollywood, outside of Paul Rudd.

On the way home from the theater, I watched my bloggin’ and reviewin’ colleagues light up Twitter with mini-reviews, calling Cedar Rapids things like “sentimental” and “inoffensive”, as an insult.  No offense to my colleagues, but most of those booger-faced milk babies wouldn’t know comedy if it bit their soft, sloping foreheads like a rabid baboon.  Look, I like subversive and offensive far more than is healthy for a functioning adult, just ask my P.O..  But just because no one makes earnest comedy that’s actually funny anymore doesn’t mean earnest comedy itself is a bad thing.  The fact that Cedar Rapids tries to be funny and say something about friendship and small-town America makes it better in my mind. It IS subversive, it’s just a little subtler about it than Borat.

Cedar Rapids reminded me of Election (one of the best comedies ever made) even before I found out Election director Alexander Payne was a producer.  Cedar has a similar way of handling quirky small-towners, understanding what’s funny about them without sh*tting down their necks for being flyover-state losers.  Ed Helms singing a song about insurance to the tune of “O Holy Night” in an Iowa hotel bar, in the hands of anyone but Arteta and Helms, would be a mildly-amusing improv bit, at best.  Helms tones down the ham, playing it so beautifully that you start off laughing at him, but before you know it, you’re legitimately moved.   Like, emotionally.  I know a statement like that makes you wonder if I’ve grown a vagina, but I swear to God it’s true. Do you know how insanely difficult it is to pull off a tone-shift like that?  It’s amazing.  Any person who didn’t like that scene also hates lab puppies, ice cream, and Beach Boys songs.

I say subversive because in a movie like this, a sentimental comedy where recognizable actors play characters who are mostly nice people and broad jokes play to all ages, the temptation would be to take out the sex, the swear words, the drug use, and make it a “four-quadrant” family comedy with a PG-13 rating.  But that wouldn’t work.  John C. Reilly’s character is a fun-loving loudmouth who drinks too much and tells raunchy jokes about muff farts — a guy like that wouldn’t say “fudge.”  It seems like shallow praise, but people forget how insanely Puritanical most studio comedies are, even the ones that are supposed to be edgy.  Remember in Old School, when Vince Vaughn’s character, the wackiest of the bunch, the unabashed poon hound, finally gets in a room with a willing coed?  “Sorry, hon, but, uh, I’m married.”  In the words of Clay Davis, sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeit.  In Cedar Rapids, married characters cheat, people swear, Ed Helms smokes crack, and they retain their likability, with no falsely didactic need to punish them for it.

To be fair (to all the seal-flippered tricycle jockeys who didn’t like it), not every joke works.  One winking reference to The Wire is too many, two is unforgivable.  Sadly, these are the moments the person who cut the trailer apparently thought were the most sellable.  Writer Phil Johnston, a former weatherman from Wisconsin who managed to get Ed Helms to read his script, apparently wrote the Wire references into the Cedar Rapids script before Whitlock was involved, never thinking the part would ultimately be played by a guy who was actually in The Wire.  Interesting story, but it ruins the joke.  Remember that Ocean’s 12 subplot where the character played by Julia Roberts gains the team access because she looks like Julia Roberts?  No one wants to be reminded of that.

Likewise, I could’ve done without Rob Corddry playing a hardass townie with a neck tattoo.  It’s too much of a one-off cameo that makes his scene seem less like part of the story and more like, “Hee hee!  Rob Corddry with a neck tattoo!”

Look, I like a pants-down, d*ck out, F-you to the establishment type of comedy as much as anyone (heck, more. I LOVE d*cks!).  But Cedar Rapids was written by a Midwesterner who wanted it to be sweet and earnest.  Not as a marketing strategy, but because that was his honest taste (if you don’t think he could’ve sold this script for more money to a bigger studio who would’ve raped it, you’re high).  Cedar Rapids doesn’t defy convention, it ignores it.  And isn’t stubbornly doing your own thing more punk rock than being a reactionary anyway?

(*cranks up Propaghandi record, shaves Ché portrait into cat, goes up stairs, tells mom to F herself*)

Grade: A-