Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Cedar Rapids (2011)

Director Miguel Arteta has a knack for capturing the endearing eccentricities of Middle America. You can see it in his television work, in shows like Freaks and Geeks and The Office. But it’s even more evident in his film career, where the likes of Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl and Youth in Revolt bolster his resume. Whereas the majority of pop culture tends to focus on the accessibility of city life and suburban dreams, Arteta’s work mines the people, stories and towns that slip through the cracks. There’s something honest and sort of charming in that choice… something peculiar and engaging.

Working from a neat little gem of a script by up-and-comer Phil Johnston, Arteta mines comedic gold in Cedar Rapids. The story is that of Tim Lippe (The Office’s Ed Helms), a na├»ve 40-year-old virgin type leaving his little town for quite possibly the first time. He’s an insurance salesman, and he’s being called up to the big leagues in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he’ll represent his company at an annual insurance convention. His boss (Stephen Root, flipping back to his News Radio heyday) wants Lippe to win the 4 Star award, which his company has won four years straight. He needs to focus and make the biggest sale of his life, but in order to do that he’ll have to stay clear of Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) and his merry band of convention miscreants. Which might be kind of hard, since Lippe’s gonna be sharing a room with the guy.

Rapids is a coming of age story of sorts, a tale of one sheltered man opening his eyes to the wondrous potential of life… which here means sex, drugs, bribes, marital affairs and corporate scandal. Helms takes it all in with pensive curiosity, a tourist led through a human safari by a foul-mouthed, uncensored hyena. Along the way he meets Joan (Anne Heche), a mother of two who treats the annual Rapids trip like her own personal Vegas. And he befriends Ronald, a polite black man who does a pretty convincing Omar from the HBO program The Wire (played, ironically, by The Wire’s Isiah Whitlock Jr.).

Arteta’s film may be distinctly small town, but it isn’t always courteous. It derives the bulk of its comedy from Lippe’s exposure to the obscene, and thus establishes itself as a more daring brand of comedy than its candy coated mainstream brethren. And yet it remains sweet and erstwhile, generating a surprisingly consistent cocktail of the hilarious and the humane.

Credit much of that to Johnston, whose script stays incredibly loyal to its characters and sensibilities. You can spot the peaks and valleys in its "live and learn" structure from afar, but only up close can you appreciate the dexterity of its landscape – in Rapids, as in all good stories, the appeal is in the details.

And it’s delivered to us via standout performances. Helms brings an authenticity to his babe in the woods role, playing Lippe as a less moronic manchild than we’ve recently grown accustom to. And the rest of the cast (including Kurtwood Smith, Alia Shawkat, Rob Corddry and Sigourney Weaver) feel right at home in his world. But it’s Reilly who delivers the most memorable performance, finding a middle ground between loud-mouth irritant and reliable companion that is not easily attained. Had Seth Rogen found such a performance in The Green Hornet, his film would have been much more successful.

Together with Johnston and Arteta they’ve created a uniquely funny comedy experience, and one of the few sure bets in our very young year.

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