CINEMA: Prairie Home Companionship

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CEDAR RAPIDS (2011, directed by Miguel Arteta, 86 minutes, U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC

If you can’t wait for The Hangover 2, Ed Helms has returned to the screen with a solo hangover, playing a child-like insurance agent partying for the first time in Cedar Rapids. Consistently amusing, if too familiar to feel truly inspired, Cedar Rapids pushes the outrageousness, yet never catches you by surprise.

 

Cedar Rapids is directed by the Miquel Arteta, who wrote his acclaimed debut, Star Maps, in 1997. Since then, Arteta has since made character-driven comedies with others scripts, most memorably Mike White, who wrote Arteta’s Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl. Here he works with relative newcomer Phil Johnston but the film is executive produced by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, the men behind Sideways and About Schmidt. Like those films, the main character is a stunted guy who is going to learn some life lessons when fate pulls him out of his mundane routine. Arteta’s version of a Payne film feels a little like minor league baseball in comparison: the jokes a little less subtle, the performances a little broader and the story a little more predictable.

 

Ed Helms, best known for his work on the Daily Show and The Office, stars Tim Lippe (the “e” is not silent), an unworldly Iowa insurance agent who has never left his small town. When a colleague dies unexpectedly, Lippe is given a chance to fly to an insurance convention in the city of Cedar Rapids, sent to uphold the company’s good Christian values and deliver a presentation. He ends up falling in with a bad element, represented by John C. Reilly’s profane and blustery Dean Ziegler, and before you know it Lippe is downing shots, swimming in his underwear and doing lines with a sweet-natured prostitute. But will he sully the name of Brown Valley Insurance and lose his job as well?

 

Helms, who specialized in playing a smug jerk reporter with Jon Stewart, works hard to bringing some dimension to the improbable man-child role he’s been given, but neither he nor Reilly (in one of his less-effective performances) can overcome a sense of condescension that lingers over their mid-western rubes. The film does earn its laughs around the edges, particularly from Lippe’s square friend Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who goes from nerdy insurance salesman to “straight-up gangster” in order to save his neck. And Helm’s scenes with the underrated Anne Heche (as the promiscuous-but-married Joan) do the most to make this improbable naif believable.

 

Another film with its hero stuck in a suspended adolescence, Cedar Rapids is a coming-of-age story for a guy who is nearly middle aged. While Lippe may end up a little wiser than when he started, the film has little insight toshare with its audience beyond the fact that lighting one’s farts is a sure-fire laugh. And on a peripheral note: Cedar Rapids’ trailer is more guilty than most of giving away the majority of the film’s biggest laughs.

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