|Three guys, a girl, and an insurance company|
Most of the time during this film, I thought to myself "This feels like an Alexander Payne movie." Alexander Payne, for those unaware, directed wonderful and heartfelt movies like Sideways and Election. Sure enough, by the time the credits rolled, Payne's name was listed as a producer for the picture. His fingerprints are all over it, though this is a bit more screwball than anything he would normally direct. The actual director here, Miguel Arteta, doesn't have the handle on human sympathy that Payne might, but he certainly hit it pretty close to home. Certainly pretty far from Cedar Rapids, which doesn't seem to hold much sympathy for those who pass through it.
Looking at a brochure for a town like Cedar Rapids, at least as portrayed in the movie, you would expect the surface - nice hotels, pools, business conventions, etc. Then again, part of the joke of the film is about appearances and how deceiving they can be. Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) wasn't aware of any such underbellies when he got the chance to visit. Actually, he wasn't much aware of anything outside of his own hometown. He lives in his childhood home, is working the same job he's had since he was sixteen, and has never left. He's so boxed in, he doesn't even have room for new people - the only connection he has is a tidy affair with his 7th-grade teacher, Macy Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver). Don't you just love the creative names that movies give school teachers?
Tim is the type of guy who doesn't know his right from his wrong. His heart is too big for the industry he's a part of; he's an insurance agent for Brown Valley. Has been all his life. Of course, he's never been the star. Until, of course, an untimely (and ultimately embarrassing) death gives Tim the chance of a lifetime. Go to an annual insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, give a presentation, and bring home their coveted trophy. For a fourth consecutive year. Can he do it? Of course he can. That's never the point of the movie. Through a close-knit group of characters who have only known each other for the course of a weekend, Tim discovers the deception of appearances (in many forms). Against the wishes of his boss (Stephen Root), he befriends a man named Dean Zigler (John C. Reilly). Zigler is the definition of a wild cannon; he's a vulgar womanizer, who is rumored to poach clients. He discovers an underbelly, at least... the only kind of underbelly a small town like Cedar Rapids can offer. He meets a prostitute, discovers alcohol and drugs, and gets in what might be the first actual fist fight he's ever been in.
This is a character piece. Not just a screwball comedy, though it is that. And performances are what make or break character pieces. Obviously, there's a bit of it that's contingent upon the screenplay, but ultimately, it boils down to the cast. Even further than that, the supporting cast. Ed Helms, our leading man, is skilled at creating the type of character you can instantly follow. He's the definition of the "every man", in the same way that most comedic actors who do drama are. Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, Steve Carrel. John C. Reilly, an Oscar nominee for Chicago, seems to have found a middle ground between the drama at which he excels and the comedy he loves doing - he plays Zigler with an unassuming sense of carelessness and heartfelt cluelessness. Anne Heche is absolutely wonderful, and incredibly sexy, as the woman who does her best to catch Tim's eyes. The best turn in the film, though, is Ron (Isia Whitlock, Jr.) - consider him the Cleveland to the film's Family Guy. Paternal, proud, and fun to be around. Smaller roles are filled by Kurtwood Smith, Alexa Vega, Thomas Lennon, Mike Birbiglia... the talent goes on and on.
As the film continues through its story, there are moments of personal depth that seem to be hinted at, but ultimately ignored in favor of a more lightweight film. But, the hints are there. It's unfortunate that the film never goes as deep as it could, unveiling a darker side of its characters, but there are genuine moments of drama. Another Payne trait - mining deep emotional darkness amongst human comedy. Most of Payne's films wind up being satire. This could have been a satire, but it winds up just being froth on a strong coffee. Sweet, and that's it. The finality of it all, however, is that Cedar Rapids, as a whole (the film and the town) wind up exactly where they should. The town, per usual, remains itself and keeps itself contained within its limits, neither changed nor furthered by the events of the film. And the film, per formula, expands Tim Libbe's life in the only way it knows how. It's a coming of age tale, for an innocent man-child who needs things to be just a little bit unorganized so he can discover a few more things about himself. What the final moments of the film will tell us, in a beautiful way, it's all about the little things.