Thursday 13 February 2020

Movie Review: Cedar Rapids (2011)

An independent small-scale comedy, Cedar Rapids creates a clever premise with potentially interesting characters, but then quickly runs out of ideas.

Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is a naive but well-meaning insurance agent who has never left his small Wisconsin hometown of Brown Valley. He enjoys sexual encounters with his former school teacher Macy (Sigourney Weaver), although he is much more serious about the relationship than she is. Tim's boss Bill (Stephen Root) is adamant the agency maintain the coveted "Two Diamond" rating awarded by the regional insurance association.

When star agent Roger unexpectedly expires, Bill dispatches Tim to the industry conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with a mission to impress association president Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith). On his first ever trip to anywhere, Tim meets a trio of seasoned insurance agents: the kind Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), boorish Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), and frisky Joan (Anne Heche). They expose him to conference-style fun, but Tim soon discovers some hard truths.

The world of nondescript conferences in nowheresville towns where salespeople congregate provides potentially rich soil for humour. Screenwriter Phil Johnston, director Miguel Arteta, and co-producer Alexander Payne conjure up a good foundation for laughs, with most of the film taking place at the mundane cookie-cutter hotel.

But once the place and people are introduced, Cedar Rapids quickly stalls. Tim's naive disposition is too easy a target, and he quickly succumbs to alcohol and pot, leading to all the usual and predictable misadventures. Uncomfortable nude encounters, skinny dipping, drunken sexual liaisons, and wild parties with prostitutes ensue, the film ticking off a checklist straight from the horny teenager comedies of the 1980s.

Ed Helms as Tim is essentially a blank canvass allowing events to be drawn on him. It is left to the veteran conference attendees to enliven the film, and thanks to a strong cast enough energy is injected to provide bursts of entertainment. John C. Reilly gives Ziegler a few good layers to peel away, while Anne Heche is the married-too-early mom who uses the conference as the one annual opportunity to live a different life. Isiah Whitlock Jr. is less well defined, while Alia Shawkat as the local whore with a heart of gold has nowhere to take her character.

Most of the laughs come from Reilly going all out with the churlish mannerisms of Ziegler as loud, rude and with a ready insult for any situation. He is a common but unwelcome conference presence, lingering like the sickly chlorine smell of the hotel's indoor swimming pool.

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