By Mat DeKinder
“Cedar Rapids” is one of those rare comedies that simultaneously aims for highbrow and lowbrow hilarity, and then manages to hit both marks.
It is a tale of innocence lost. It’s got poop jokes. And it happens to be the funniest movie of a young 2011.
Tim Lippe, as played by rising comedy star Ed Helms, is a rube of the highest order. He lives in the small town of Brown Valley, Wisconsin and works for Brown Star Insurance – a company name with the comedic subtlety of a seventh-grade boy.
Tim is devoid of vices, friendly, timid and dates his old sixth-grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver, still foxy after all these years). He’s practically begging for a real-world wakeup call.
The call comes unexpectedly when Tim is asked by his boss (Stephen Root, who instantly makes any movie better) to deliver a presentation at an insurance conference in the “big city” of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
We chuckle as Tim is blown away by such exotics as air travel, rental cars and an African-American roommate, fellow insurance agent Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who turns out to be even blander than Tim.
Fate and hotel overbooking saddles Tim with a second roommate, the relentlessly obnoxious Dean Ziegler (as played by comedic-force-of-nature John C. Reilly). It’s almost strange to think that Reilly was once best-known as a dramatic actor because he might be the funniest guy working in Hollywood today.
Dean, or “Deanzie” as he likes to be called, is a fountain of scatological jokes and offensive comments, but he also boasts a strong sense of loyalty and a surprisingly fixed moral compass.
This complexity of the characters is what makes “Cedar Rapids” more than a run-of-the-mill comedy. These are real people, granted they are painted to the extreme, but they are much more than just empty shells there to allow the actors to mug for the camera.
This may be best illustrated in the character of Joan played by Anne Heche. We’ll ignore the fact that she might be the most attractive insurance agent in history and instead focus on how this convention veteran fits right in as one of the guys.
Yet when it becomes clear that this annual trip to Cedar Rapids is the highlight of her year and an escape from a weighty family life, a sense of quiet desperation creeps into her character. Heche has never been better and because we get to know these characters so well their misadventures become all the funnier.
Independent-film veteran director Miguel Arteta takes care to inject heart into his movie, but never at the expense of the jokes. Plus, at a lean 86 minutes, the movie never gives itself time to drag, which is a cue other comedy directors could certainly learn from (I’m looking at you Judd Apatow).
I’m fully aware that my praise for “Cedar Rapids” makes the movie sound a little dry, but please make no mistake, you will laugh at this movie. A lot. And that credit goes to the cast.
Reilly gets all the best lines and delivers them with vigor, and Heche displays the chops of a seasoned comedienne. Whitlock makes for a great straight-man and his character’s professed love for the HBO program “The Wire” is funny not only because it pays off later in the movie, but also because Whitlock himself had a recurring role on the show.
But this movie is all about Tim’s journey and Helms pulls it off effortlessly. As Tim’s illusions are shattered and he succumbs to various temptations, Helms somehow manages to keep Tim’s naiveté from becoming pathetic. He winds up being a guy you root for, not someone you pity. Helms is quietly becoming one of Hollywood’s most bankable comedic actors.
Who knew there was this much fun and excitement in Cedar Rapids? Maybe if we’re lucky there will be a sequel to show us the wild times to be had in Des Moines.
“Cedar Rapids” is rated R for crude and sexual content, language and drug use.
Mat DeKinder was once described as the “Jackie Moon of film critics” by a guy named Nate.