Monday, April 4, 2011

Cedar Rapids: Midwest Naivete on Speed

Both a vehicle for Ed Helms and a deadpan parody of Midwestern sensibilities, Cedar Rapids has a little bit of that feeling of weak coffee and ham – that is, like the Midwest itself, it’s unpretentious, somewhat naive, and a bit flat, but nevertheless kindhearted, strangely insightful, and sincere, the last perhaps to a fault (since I hail from Ohio I believe I’m allowed to say such things).

Helms plays Tim Lippe, an extraordinarily innocent thirty-something insurance salesman from Brown Valley, Wisconsin. (If they could have named the town “Bumblefuck” and gotten away with it, I believe they would have.) Lippe has a somewhat girlfriend being played magnanimously (and a bit matronly) by Sigourney Weaver – that is, he believes she’s his girlfriend but we know otherwise – and he’s never left his hometown before. When his company's star insurance salesman dies from accidental masturbatory asphyxiation, it’s not only an embarrassment for the town, it leaves Tim as the only salesman who can travel to Cedar Rapids for the annual insurance convention to win the coveted Double-Diamond Award for his neurotic boss.

We’ve seen these near-autistically naïve characters a lot lately, and especially from the casts of "Saturday Night Live" and "The Daily Show." Steve Carell in Dinner for Schmucks, or Will Ferrell in Elf come to mind. I believe these all go back to the Bill Murray golf caddy character from Caddy Shack, with a good dose of Chauncy Gardener thrown in for heart. The basic set-up is always the same: Innocent is goofy but good, comes to big city where he’s made fun of and ridiculed, then turns the tables on the bullies and loses the ostensible prize, but shows his buddies what real friendship is, learns his heart’s desire and wins it after all. These movies always seem to be made by cynical Hollywood or New York folk who probably themselves come from such humble backgrounds and have left them behind long ago. There’s always a sense of embarrassment and resentment at the naïve fucks (excuse the coarse coastal color), no matter how much the innocent hero learns or the friends come to appreciate the softer emotions in life. These movies often feel to me like sublimated rage at the idiocy of small-town manners, gilded in a tale of an elevated naïf. But then again, maybe that’s just a cynical ex-Midwestern New Yorker talking.

Cedar Rapids follows the same basic formula; however, one gets more of a sense of actual care for the Midwest characters. Not all these Midwesterners are naïve nor innocent – in fact, Cedar Rapids surrounds Ed Helms with a cadre of other notable Midwest types, including the party boy, the bad girl, the upright Black dude, the prostitute, and the Christian hypocrite. Not all of these are that original, but they are diverse and they do give the movie a broader feel of real Midwest parody.

Compared with Brown Valley, Wisconsin, Cedar Rapids is the big city, and the rickety, two-story hotel where the conference takes place the equivalent of Disneyland. I really enjoyed this reduced, reoriented perspective; watching the characters go through their convention antics and hotel cut-ups really felt like watching a scene inside a snow globe. Despite the sex, the drugs, the backstabbing, and the malfeasance that takes place, none of it feels all too serious since these people, when you get down to it, can’t help but like each other.

I’m not sure I’m the greatest fan of Ed Helms, though. He does right by the character – bringing that expected combination of naïveté and pluck. But he doesn’t really carry the lead as he should. He's surrounded by a cast of pros - including John C Reilly, Anne Heche, and Sigourney Weaver - who are able to modulate their performances from one to five while Helms stays on a constant 4. By the end, the gentle irony underpinning the film gets trampled by the "Daily Show" stock approach. I'm a critic who hates criticizing actors, especially comics, who have it tough enough. But I can't help but feel in the hands of another actor, this film might have delivered better on its promise of gentle ribbing and insight. Instead, the movie hovers half-way between indie character sketch and cheap Comedy Channel shtick. In the end, I think which type of film you think this turns out to be depends largely on how much you can overlook Helms in the lead.

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