Dir:- Miguel Arteta
Starr:- Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jnr., Kurtwood Smith, Stephen Root, Sigourney Weaver
Cedar Rapids is perhaps one of the most dull and patronising movies I’ve ever had the misfortune to watch. Arteta, the director of the quietly amusing Chuck and Buck, delivers not so much a comedy, as an unfunny exercise in ‘feel-good’ cliches. Cedar Rapids is at once painfully familiar (Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a movie with similarly sickly-sweet destination) and shockingly dumb. As with many comedies from the noughties Arteta literally seems to be sitting with a checklist of ‘edgy’ transgressions and border-line taboos (drugs, prostitutes, drunkenness, sex with an older woman, perverse sex), the assumption being that the very mention of these things, around Ed Helms seemingly retarded central character, is funny. It isn’t, they aren’t and Ed Helms (Stu from The Hangover) gives one of the most cringingly feckless performances I’ve ever seen.
Helms plays a child-like insurance salesman, who, reinforcing the naivety of his character, sleeps with his former teacher (a waste of Sigourney Weaver’s talents) and trusts unreservedly his paternalistic boss (a waste of Stephen Root’s talents). Helms’ character is a quite unbelievable figure, a mature male with a relatively responsible job, who has barely any conception of how to do the most basic of things (such as check-in to a hotel), is utterly devoid of backstory and appears to have never left his hometown (even though he is an insurance salesman). It’s a wonderfully condescending depiction of ‘small-town’ reality that could have only been written by an urban city-dweller. Helms’ character is supposed to be sweetly naive, infecting those around him with his uncomplicated charm and honesty. This primarily consists of him wandering around with a rapturous grin on his face and every so often doing an excitable little jig. How anyone would construe this as anything other than irritating, in extremis, is frankly beyond me.
The slender plot of Cedar Rapids sees Helms’ Tim Lippe dispatched to the eponymous Iowa city to attend an annual insurance agency prize-giving. The usual company spokesman has had a rather embarrassing death, so Root’s boss opts to send the safest pair of hands he knows. As well as the snide depiction of small-town life, Cedar Rapids also has a smug approach to the insurance industry and the idea of industry conferences, networking events and prize-givings. It is almost as if the writers believe the very mention of ‘insurance’ is sufficient shorthand for social ineptitude. Whilst I don’t doubt that many company or industry get-togethers are rather cringe-worthy, there is nonetheless something rather nasty about the way in which Cedar Rapids appears to cultivate its ‘comedy’, that requires very little quality writing and quite a lot of lazy stereotyping.
Of the people we get to meet at this prize-giving we have a loud-mouthed drunkard with an unexpectedly honourable approach to the industry (played by John C. Reilly), a wife and mother who uses these events to live a little dangerously as that’s all the excitement she has in her life (played by Anne Heche), the corrupt and hypocritically moral head of the prize-giving committee who likes to think of the insurance industry as a quasi-religion (played by Kurtwood Smith) and the clean-living, middle-aged, Wire-quoting black salesman who may, or may not, be a closet homosexual (superbly portrayed by Isiah Whitlock Jnr.).
Over the course of the event Helms manages to befriend his two roommates, inexplicably sleep with Heche’s character and setup a cunning sting on Smith’s corrupt politico. It is a narrative that is so transparently simple and straightforward that it could only really function with the charm of its performers. Helms fails miserably at engaging the viewer, whilst Heche’s role seems unconvincing and underwritten (a thought further reinforced with her minor part in the movie’s end credit promotional sequence). Kurtwood Smith can do smarm and corruption in his sleep and his character’s benign malignancy is quite entertaining. However, the only actors to really run with their roles are Reilly and Whitlock Jnr. Reilly has a relatively easy task of inhabiting the loudmouth boozer role, but in saying that he really does do drunk rather well (a particularly funny sequence being when he puts a bin lid on his head and wades out into the pool pretending to be R2D2). Whitlock Jnr,, famous for playing the odious corrupt politician Clay Davis in HBO’s The Wire, is the only real revelation in the film, delivering a convincingly human and poignant minor-key role, as the upright insurance salesman who keeps his private life private. As I’ve said in other reviews, the fact that Whitlock Jnr. plays things so straight, allows the comic in his performance to be emphasised, thus his geeky referencing of The Wire works, as you could believe his character may watch The Wire (and not just get a crappy chuckle at the fact it’s coming from Clay Davis’ mouth).
Cedar Rapids belongs to that breed of Hollywood comedy (Doc Hollywood being another candidate that immediately springs to mind) that tends to both patronise and eulogise Middle-American/Southern States American ‘small-town’ existence. It pretends to have some of the empathy and emotional engagement of a dramatic work like The Last Picture Show, but the assumed sincerity of its aims are an utterly false kind. Despite the quasi-‘feel-good’ ending, in which the caricature of a ‘little guy’ wins over the forces of conniving and corrupt corporatism (this is no It’s a Wonderful Life), I found it impossible to escape the notion that I was watching the comic equivalent of laughing at the ‘fat kid’ in the playground. In its aimless, charmless, plotless meanderings Cedar Rapids manages to fritter away some great acting talent (even Rob Cordry’s brief cameo is a complete waste) and leaves you looking toward the exit long before its ninety minutes are up. Just one last minor query to finish off with, what is it with Ed Helms’ movies and the need for him to get involved in some ultra-naive, friendly relationship with a prostitute (a whole pointless sub-plot I can’t even be bothered to discuss here)?