Never Vapid: Cedar Rapids–Movie Review

Despite what the trailers might lead you on to believe, Cedar Rapids is a smart and insightful film–it’s just in the garb of a low-brow comedy.  Recently I was writing about how comedies contain more truth than people give them credit for, and Cedar Rapids is a fitting example.  For at the core of this story, there is a very truthful sensibility.  It’s not a watered-down version of the Hang Over, as many people took it to be.

Screenshot from Cedar Rapids

The movie stars Ed Helms as a lonely, buttoned-down insurance agent who feels his life is slipping away from him.  He wants children but is no closer to having them, especially because the woman he’s seeing suggests again and again that she’s not serious about him, but he can’t get the message.  In one of the movie’s more lowbrow jokes, it’s revealed that this woman happens to be his teacher way back from grade school.  If you can get past the jokes about that, I think you’ll see the heart of this movie.

The insurance company he works for is one that works hard to maintain a wholesome family image, but this is brutally decimated when one of the lead salesmen dies in the middle of an embarassing sexual act, and this finds its way into the town gossip.  Now, Ed Helms, because he’s so reserved and even repressed, is elected to be the company’s new ambassador and to go to an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids to hopefully convince people how PC and genial their company is.

It’s when he gets to Cedar Rapids that the film picks up, and when it becomes highly insightful.  The setting of Cedar Rapids itself becomes a sort of microcosm for the larger country.  Think of it this way, does it ever seem like a month goes by in America where a politician doesn’t resign due to some sort of sexual snafu?  Anthony Weiner comes to mind, but there’s a whole host of others.  This movie boils down the country’s news into the lives of a handful of characters.  It’s like everyone is expected to repress their baser instincts, and this is what stands for quality.

So I think you can understand that Helms’ character is in a sad position, but he happens to meet new friends in Cedar Rapids, and his life takes off on a different course.

screenshot from Cedar Rapids

John C. Reilly plays the film’s comic-relief, and he’s often hilarious.  What’s interesting is that Cedar Rapids is directed by Miguel Arteta, the director of The Good Girl back in 2002.  If you remember that movie, John C. Reilly plays a deplorable character who’s not allowed to be funny, just coarse.  In this movie, Arteta turns Reilly into a surprisingly likeable character.  What I love about his character is that he’s the one who brings the crude humor…  By that I mean the film doesn’t try to portray the world as a place where crude and gross things happen all the time (like in a Farrelly Brothers’ film), rather there’s just people who like to joke about such things.

screenshot from Cedar Rapids

Isiah Whitlock Jr. helps ground the film.  Often he’s the straight man or the comic foil for Reilly’s shenanigans.  His droll delivery is sure to inspire impressions.

screenshot from Cedar Rapids

Anne Heche is effervescent in Cedar Rapids, and it’s a good role for her.  In fact, this is the first thing I’ve seen with her that I’ve really taken note of her performace in.  She’s often used here to supply dramatic content, and she does well, but I would’ve liked to have seen more jokes involving her.  I know a lot of actresses have been complaining recently that funny roles aren’t too frequently given to women, and it does seem the writers wrote most of the jokes for the guys.

Anyways, these three characters all come together to help save Ed Helms from what was otherwise a depressing existence.  They hardly seem to care about their careers at all; it’s more important to them that Helms be allowed to live a little.  I personally love this kind of story.  There’s always a character whose life has been rather lousy who’s then sent, as if by fate, a handful of characters here to save them, as if to say that sooner or later luck has a way of leveling out.

I believe the film does contain a good many important messages, but my favorite aspect of it was that it’s not a film that suggests a quick romance is going to solve all of life’s problems.  Instead, it deals with how friendship itself can often alleviate the pains that love can’t.  In movies, all too often, friendship’s undervalued and everything’s made out to be hunky-dory because the protagonist falls in love quickly.

Are there problems with the movie?  Sure.  The subplot about Helms dating his teacher is unnecessary and detracts from the reality of the film, and some of the jokes don’t work.  I’d also say the filmmakers could have trimmed about fifteen minutes from the movie, but other than that, this is a comedy that has a lot going for it.

Cedar Rapids is out on DVD and available on disc on Netflix.

If you want to watch a recent comedy without crude humor, check out:

Click on the pic to read my review of Midnight in Paris


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