State of Rapid Change

Cedar Rapids - 2011
Written by Phil Johnson
Directed by Miguel Arteta

In a sentence never uttered before in human history; Cedar Rapids is fast becoming my new "happy place."  Not the city, mind you, but the film.  It has joined the ranks of Wonder Boys and Almost Famous as one of my comfort comedies.  Like those films, Cedar Rapids is filled with beautifully flawed human characters crashing into each others' lives and coming out something new.

This is Ed Helms' movie.  The "aw shucks" naivete of his characters from The Daily Show, The Office and The Hangover reach their purest (least obnoxious) and most endearing form here in his character, Tim Lippe.  Tim, an insurance agent from small town Wisconsin, is the far-more-dependent partner in a relationship with his former 7th grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver).  Called upon at the last minute to defend his agency's award-winning status at the regional convention of insurers, Tim is forced to leave the familiar comfort of his town for the eye-opening and corrupting influences of the "big city."

At the convention, he makes a new collection of friends, albeit with varying levels of hesitation.  The first is hotel prostitute Bree (Alia Shawkat from Arrested Development), whose come-on Tim completely fails to recognize, offering her a butterscotch candy instead of a cigarette.  The next is convention roommate Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.).  They're joined by obnoxious fellow agent Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), who Tim's boss has specifically warned him to avoid.  And finally there's Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche) whose brashness intrigues and befuddles Tim, and who is herself intrigued and befuddled by his earnestness.

Throughout the weekend, each of the characters gets an opportunity to defy expectations.  Well, maybe not Bree (who, one must admit, exists primarily as a plot device), although she does bail on a potentially profitable convention night to take Tim to house party, but the four insurance agents each get at least one scene to play against character.

 What struck me most on my recent viewing was that four main characters (Tim, Ronald, Deanzie and Joan) each represent our own anxieties about ourselves.  Tim isn't just earnest; he's the clueless naif we each fear ourselves to be when we make ourselves vulnerable to something new, to the world that is bigger than our own back yard.  Ronald is the boring person we fear we are in small talk.  Dean is the overbearing doofus that we worry others will see us as when we speak with confidence, whether real or feigned.  Joan was a little harder to figure out, but I think she's how lost we can feel in our own lives -- overwhelmed but incomplete by living up to expectations and unconvinced by our own self-assurance.  Together, the four of them create a kind of balance, and their acceptance of each other creates a kind of balance between them.

And mayhem.  Don't get me wrong, it's not all cuddles.  The way they rub against each other leads to all kinds of internal and external conflict, but through it, they learn to accept and rely on each other thus becoming something new, something whole.

The movie is packed with rock-solid character actors.  Beyond Helms, Reilly, Heche, Whitlock, Shawkat and Weaver, Stephen Root (News Radio) and Kurtwood Smith (Robocop, That 70s Show) represent Tim's rock-and-a-hard-place.  Tom Lennon and Rob Corddry both appear in almost cameo roles, but Lennon's character -- and the seamy circumstances of his death early in the film -- thread through much of what happens later.

Cedar Rapids never resorts to the squirmy Comedy of Discomfort that has become the trend in "edgy" and "indy" comedy.  There's shame and embarrassment aplenty, but it's the result of Tim's earnestness coming into conflict with the big nasty world.  He doesn't always do the right things, but he does the wrong things for the right reasons.  His pains are growing pains, and his weekend of confronting his own fears and misconceptions about the world and the wild ride that ensues turn out to be one of those life-changing experiences that strike from out of the blue when we venture beyond the fields we know.

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