John C. Reilly scores almost every major laugh in Cedar Rapids. He’s also a supporting character in the story. These two things are not coincidental. Director Miguel Arteta’s comedy from Phil Johnston’s script is often of two minds, oscillating lazily between a coming-of-middle-age comedy and a desperate satire of Midwestern values that wears its agenda on its sleeve. As a result, a good portion of the film’s first two acts and pretty much everything having to do in those periods with the main character feel less like comedy and more like a forced satire carved by someone with an ax to grind, leaving the real comedy to the supporting players. It’s not as if Midwestern cheesiness is beyond the pale; if anything, it’s ripe for satire, as seen in the works of Alexander Payne, who’s credited as a producer here but whose films endeavored to see their characters more as flawed subjects and less as objects of condescension. Mike Judge’s “King of the Hill” is probably the best example of a story designed to gently mock its setting while also giving it a loving punch on the shoulder; it’s a “nobody picks on my kid brother but me” approach, a humor born of familiarity and acceptance as much as a desire for change. Yet too often Cedar Rapids feels charged up and raring to make a point (Some people are mean! Hypocrites exist! etc.) instead of putting its characters in situations and letting them react. As a result, it’s only at its best and most enjoyable in the back half, when it mostly chucks the sense of scorn in favor of a focus on the lovable loser at its heart. When that happens, it’s golden.
The tool that the filmmakers use to exact their minor vengeance is Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), an agent with Wisconsin’s Brown Star Insurance. He’s a simple man, clad obsessively in earth tones and sweater vests and completely in love with the woman who shares his bed, Macy (Sigourney Weaver). Macy was his teacher in 7th grade, which means that even as Tim carries on his adult sexual relationship, he’s still woefully repressed and desperately clinging to a weird Oedipal fling in order to find fulfillment. The point here seems to be that what Tim perceives as a normal relationship is anything but, and that his awakening won’t so much be one of learning about the world but accepting his own flawed place in it. That’s a good idea for a story, though Johnston and Arteta tend to slam the nail on the head whenever they can. Tim’s boss, Bill (Stephen Root), preaches family values even while leaning mainly on expressions like “Who the Christ told you that?” for expletives; the coveted regional Two Diamond Award, which Tim’s company has won two years running, is said by its organization’s founder to represent a commitment to “community, country, and God,” even though it was awarded to a colleague of Tim’s (the criminally under-used Thomas Lennon) who died in a BDSM accident that tainted his rep as a family man; etc., etc. After a while, these points don’t so much feel like grace notes as attempts on Johnston’s behalf to complain about disappointments in the abstract. It’s not that there’s no room in a film like this for a religious hypocrite: it’s that that character needs to be written as such, not merely presented as a self-assumed argument in a case against an invisible force. You don’t reveal the problem of evil by making everyone a cartoon; you do it by writing a man or woman who believes that their evil is good. Even in a comedy.
Tim’s assignment is to attend a convention of insurance agents in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and bring home another Two Diamond trophy for his boss by giving a strong presentation to Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith), the head of the organization. The trip is Tim’s first time on a plane, and Helms is skilled enough to play his joy at seeing two-story hotel lobbies and driving a rented Cavalier as honest, not snide. Tim finds himself rooming at the show with Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), a mild-mannered square, and Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a boorish partier who openly mocks the convention’s calls to moral leadership. There’s also Joan (Anne Heche), an agent the other two men know from conventions past who rounds out their gang. Tim’s boss warns him beforehand to avoid Dean, based on rumors that Dean poaches clients from unsuspecting agents, but Tim soon finds himself drawn into an unpredictable world as he comes out of his shell and tries to figure out how to navigate the often disappointingly brutal world of real business.
It’s these sequences where the film really shines, thanks to Helms’ honed skill at playing an aw-shucks sweetness. There’s a montage in which he and the others participate in a scavenger hunt that’s totally endearing, buoyed by the chemistry between Helms and Heche and the crackling attitude that Reilly brings to everything. Ironically, the film’s tonal inconsistency starts to work in its favor: by dropping the black and white takes on morality and shifting the focus to Tim’s blossoming as a person, the story gets much stronger. By the end, the things he learns about the way some people work don’t feel like attacks on any particular lifestyle but genuine revelations about specific characters. It takes the film a while to get there, but it finds its groove.
Reilly really does steal the show, though. Cedar Rapids belongs to that brand of comedy that simply transposes certain tragic events to a comedic setting and hopes that the bookending laughs are enough to turn pain into poignancy, and while it doesn’t always work, Reilly somehow makes every punch line work. Dean is the consummate pig, that guy from everyone’s work experience who thinks it’s hilarious to bring up cunnilingus in the common room and refer to it as “eating the canned tuna from the bottom shelf,” but Reilly’s fuzzy charm eventually turns him into a real person: crude but well-meaning, and willing to help out anyone who can look past his surface. The rest of the cast is strong, too. Whitlock is funny and reliable, and though he’s stated that jokes in which his character refers to HBO’s “The Wire” and even impersonates that show’s Omar Little were written before he signed on, it’s still a little weird to see a former star of that show riffing about it in a movie. It kind of bends the fabric of the universe for a minute, much more than if another character made the references or if Ronald did so in a more subtle way. Heche is pretty endearing, too, and if she’s cut a little too much from the same emotional cloth as Vera Farmiga’s character from Up in the Air, at least she’s honest about it.
Helms’ presence in a film about occasionally out-of-control partying is of course reminiscent of his work in The Hangover, which, for all its bumps, was a great ride once it really got under way. There’s a similar feeling to Cedar Rapids, which also starts out awkwardly before hitting the gas and then finally coasting to a stop, though it’s a bit disappointing here if only because Arteta’s film had the potential that the earlier one never did, which was the chance to traffic in real, non-fraternity-based emotion. In a way, the film itself feels a bit like Tim’s evolution: blindered at first and tied to a simple worldview, but eventually able to see its characters and friends for who they are. It would’ve been nice had the film gotten there quicker, but it’s nice that it finally finds its way.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.