365 Days, 100 Films #26 – Cedar Rapids (2011)

Cedar Rapids, 2011.

Directed by Miguel Arteta.
Starring Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Kurtwood Smith, Stephen Root, Mike O’Malley, Sigourney Weaver and Alia Shawkat.


An innocent, small-town insurance salesman is introduced to the harder, partying ways of life at a conference in Cedar Rapids.

John C. Reilly used to be a respectable guy. He was the solid character actor of Boogie Nights, The Thin Red Line and Magnolia. Actors like that often plod away with these thankless roles, getting stuck in their own revolving doors. But then came Will Ferrell. He showed Reilly a sneaky way out.

If this were school, Reilly’s drama teacher would have been disappointed. “Such high hopes for that boy,” she’d bemoan in the staff room, “but now he’s fallen in with that bunch of comedians.” It was Talladega Nights what did it, playing Ferrell’s best friend, Cal. They seem to have been joined at the hip ever since. Accomplished actors usually make for quite good comedic ones, but Reilly goes straight for the clown, sometimes even surpassing Ferrell for absurdity. Maybe it’s his puffy face.

That’s why any film with him in is worth your time – he’s the Philip Seymour Hoffman of comedy films. Cedar Rapids casts him as a hard-drinking and partying insurance salesman, Dean Ziegler. He’s the one that our lead insurance salesman, Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), is instructed to avoid at all costs. You see, Cedar Rapids is an annual convention for Christian insurance companies. Each conference sees the representative with the most Christian commitment to serving their customers honoured with the prestigious Two Diamonds award. Lippe’s company have won the award for the past three years, all thanks to his predecessor’s charisma and charm (and maybe something else). But following his suspicious death (auto-erotic asphyxiation is implied), it’s now up to Lippe to take home the Two Diamonds trophy.

The problem is that Lippe is overwhelmingly mild-mannered and naïve. He’s never been on a plane before and has a sexual relationship with his old school teacher (Sigourney Weaver, in a creepy, mothering way). As Cedar Rapids is a new experience for Lippe, his boss provides him with the aforementioned list of people to seek out and people to avoid. Only one name adorns the ‘Avoid’ side: Ziegler.

As events often do in these situations, Ziegler ends up in the same room as Lippe. His original roommate, Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr., or Senator “Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeit” Davis from The Wire), volunteered them to put up an extra bed because of an overbooked hotel. Initially Lippe wants nothing to do with Ziegler. He’s under strict orders not to. But Ziegler wears him down, first getting him to drink, then to sing (Helms, by the way, has a tremendous voice) and, ultimately, to “dance with the tiger”. Lippe never seems to get any less naïve, but his innocence is sorely tested.

Along the way there’s your standard sub-plots of romance and corruption. Not much to see there; move along. There’s also a far bawdier third act, which seems to have seeped in from some Judd Apatow film being shot in a studio nearby. There’s prostitutes, hard drugs and Rob Corddry. This part has some of the film’s funniest moments, and it’s cool to see the characters far removed from their insurance conference safety zone, but it jars with the observed nature of all before it.

There is a very good film somewhere in Cedar Rapids, but it’s impossible to say where. Maybe if they ran more with the Lippe as a 40-Year Old Virgin character, but it’s hard to say if that would have worked. It would have been great to focus more on the three guys, Reilly, Helms and Whitlock, as their banter was very fluid – but the romantic sub-plot isn’t actually that bad. More Reilly overall would have been appreciated, but you’d run the risk of making him a caricature.

Near the end of the film in particular, Cedar Rapids highlights how important conferences are to these characters. Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche) sees it as an escape from her family in a what-happens-in-Cedar-Rapids-stays-in-Cedar-Rapids kinda way. Yet she remains very likeable so you share her moral ambiguity. Ziegler’s recent divorce is also gently hinted at, and you get the sense Cedar Rapids lets him forget that void at home. There’s a sweet melancholy for the prostitute, Bree (Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat) that stands outside Cedar Rapids’ entrance too. The place must be a good source of business; with a hotel full of people who don’t know each other and are far away from the people they do. It’s like a Freshers Week for grown-ups.

Maybe that’s it, then. If Cedar Rapids played for the darker, Pathos laughs in this world of three-night stand conferences, it wouldn’t be so forgettable. It isn’t bad, but in no way is it anything above ‘average’. Even then, that’s largely due to the quality of the cast.

Oli Davis

365 Days, 100 Films

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