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Movie Review: ‘Cedar Rapids’ is a hilarious fish-out-of-water comedy

John C. Reilly, Ed Helms and Isiah Whitlock Jr. in Cedar Rapids.

About halfway through the excellent indie fish-out-of-water comedy Cedar Rapids, Tim (Ed Helms) is sitting on a bench by the Iowa River with his new friend Joan (Anne Heche), who he has just met at the insurance convention they are both attending. Tim explains why he thinks being an insurance agent is such noble work. He points to the river and reminds Joan of when it flooded its banks and thousands of people’s homes were under water. It was insurance agents who were there trying to get these people’s lives back, he says.

He manages to make insurance sound as honorable as being a high school teacher or a firefighter or a doctor-without-borders. Insurance agents, to Tim, are superheroes. Yes, Tim is one of the most earnest, and perhaps most naïve characters you may ever encounter on the screen. He is adorably uptight and amazingly sweet, and not in a saccharine way.

Joan and the other sundry agents at the Cedar Rapids convention do not take their lives, or their livelihoods, so seriously. They all work very hard, but unlike Tim, they play hard, really hard. They drink and they swear and some of them cheat on their spouses. For Tim, the crass world of his colleagues, this big city (it’s big to him), and all of the drinking is all just a little overwhelming.

And so, hilarity ensues.

Anne Heche and Ed Helms.

Tim’s innocence, confusion and stunted maturity drive the plot of Cedar Rapids. When the star salesman in Tim’s agency – Brown Star Insurance, a name that is never commented on – drops dead during a botched autoerotic asphyxiation (No, it was an accident! according to Tim), their boss (Stephen Root) sends Tim to a convention in Cedar Rapids, where Tim must give the presentation that will win the agency its seventh Two Star Award.

Tim has never been on a plane before coming to the convention, he’s dating a woman (Sigourney Weaver) who clearly is standing in for his dead mother and he’s so nervous about going to the city that he laminates maps of Cedar Rapids and carries all of his money (in travelers checks, of course) in a travel wallet strapped to his stomach.

When he meets the hotel’s resident hooker, he thinks the party she’s referring to features hats and streamers. Tim is on the phone with his girlfriend when he meets Ron (the subtly funny Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), the agent he’s sharing a room with. “There’s an Afro-American in my room!” he whispers, shocked and a little scared.

The catalyst for Tim’s inevitable transformation comes in the form of John C. Reilly, who plays Dean Ziegler, another agent who’s almost every utterance is profanely funny and unprintable in a respectable publication. Dean pushes Tim to drink, dance, flirt with Joan, and ultimately to stand up for himself. Eventually, Tim goes too far – the hooker, some meth, and a violent cameo from Rob Corddry are involved. Dean, Joan and Ron must drag Tim back to the middle ground between Pollyanna and Jerri Blank.

All of this is managed with great naturalism by Miguel Arteta, the director who made such great, and gay, art house hits like Star Maps, Chuck and Buck, and The Good Girl. (And Cedar Rapids could have been more fabulous; gay Ron didn’t have to be the only celibate character.) Working from a script by Phil Johnston that had been on the famous Blacklist of great unproduced films, Arteta stamps down the sheen of the typical Hollywood comedy. The colors are muted and the stars are dressed (and occasionally undressed) and made up to look like people who might actually pass as Midwestern insurance agents.

After The Office and The Hangover, Ed Helms is probably going to be typecast as a dork forever, and damn, does he do that well. But his straight-cut bangs and khakis-and-a-sweater uniform ratchet up Tim’s geekiness as much as dressing Anne Heche in JC Penny. Also denying her make-up douses Anne Heche’s glamour.

Heche has moved past Ellen and her subsequent insanity to become a fine under-the-radar character actress. She easily transitions from sweet repartee with Ed Helms to match Reilly’s dirty jocularity. And Reilly is always great, but rarely does he steal every scene he’s in as he does in Cedar Rapids. This is perhaps his best performance since he was nominated for an Oscar for Chicago.

Beneath the blowhard that Dean performs for the crowd is a kind, somewhat sad, and surprisingly ethical professional, and the friendship that develops between him and Tim is, while at times hysterical, almost as sweet and wholesome as the apple pie you might find at the Iowa State Fair.

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Posted by on Feb 17, 2011. Filed under Movie Review, Top Highlights. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

1 Comment for “Movie Review: ‘Cedar Rapids’ is a hilarious fish-out-of-water comedy”

  1. Tim..yes it is

    Dear LGBT… I have no idea how I wound up on your site, but my Name is Tim, same as the movie fellow, and I too am an insurance agent, and I just happen to live in Iowa City, just south of Cedar Rapids..and I just happened to see the movie last night. Cedar Rapids, the movie, may well become another cult film. ( I walked out on opening night of Rocky Horror Show at the Beautiful Bellasco in NYC !).. The film was well put together, with lots of fast lines, worth revisiting. A few observations, (from a local)..Except for a few real aerial shots of downtown CR, the entire film was shot somewhere maybe India??..but not Iowa.

    Cedar Rapids is a blue collar town, and never looked as good as the film version…I have never seen Brie, or anyone in her profession… CR is a reasonable place, but not the outrageous portrayal in the film, and The Iowa State Insurance Convention is in April this year in Dubuque, but has never approached the activities of the film. Yes, there are Bible banging prayer breakfasts, eat them or not, and motivation speeches and such.

    Observations on character of insurance agents. As in all professions, insurance agents vary in character, but generally speaking, we generally are very mindful of responsibility and ethics and think what really is best for our client, and not just about winning the “San Diego” Sales Contest. Many agents fought uphill fights to get clients the benefits due after our massive flood (Twice the size of Katrina) three years ago, as many companies squirmed out of mailing checks. And the Bastards at FEMA still have not paid most claims to individual homeowners or to City of Cedar Rapids. So that line was..very true.

    Encourage you to make a short trip here in summer, Iowa State Fair really is The Great Fair..the pie is good, but we are known for eating most things on sticks….
    .And, Get Married..while it is still legal in Iowa…(Right wing extreme Governor these daze)

    Tim Taffe, Iowa City, once a Californian (SF)
    p.s. I will be on the look out for Anne Heche at the State Convention.

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