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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 18, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 07
Funny Cedar Rapids a character-driven winner for Arteta
Arts & Entertainment
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Funny Cedar Rapids a character-driven winner for Arteta

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Cedar Rapids
Opening February 18


It is about time that one of director Miguel Arteta's comedies breaks into the mainstream. The man behind a series of solidly disarming socially inventive satires including Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl, and Youth in Revolt, the guy has made a living making audiences humorously uncomfortable with a combination of smarts and heart that should have made him a household name eons ago.

But for all his success with critics and fans of independent cinema, none of his pictures have made a big dent at the box office. Even when starring the likes of Jennifer Aniston, Michael Cera or Zach Galifianakis, his films get solid reviews and strong notices from the few who see them, but never linger around the multiplex very long.

That might change with Arteta's new comedy, Cedar Rapids. Written by newcomer Phil Johnston, starring The Hangover scene-stealer Ed Helms and with juicy supporting roles for John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock, Jr., Kurtwood Smith, Stephen Root, and Sigourney Weaver, the movie is an enjoyable, foul-mouthed frolic. It is smart, witty, and extremely entertaining. What's even better is that it respects its characters, giving the film an emotional center that connected straight to the middle of my heart.

The setup is like something out of Mark Twain or O'Henry crossed with a bit of Lewis Carroll and transported to the modern day. Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is a sheltered, naïve small-town Wisconsin insurance salesman sent by his boss Bill Krogstad (Root) to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for a large convention that could positively set the future course for his firm. There his eyes are opened to a variety of sights and sounds, meeting fellow agents Ronald Wilkes (Whitlock), Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Heche), and Dean Ziegler (Reilly), as well as sweet-natured call girl Bree (Alia Shawkat), all of whom play a part in his journey through the Midwestern looking glass.

What's great about all of this is that everything that happens to Tim is character-driven and moves the story forward. Nothing is inserted to get a cheap laugh or offer up a big shock; instead it serves to help our hero grow and mature into a more fully developed human being. Some of it's insane bits are nasty, but all of it serves a greater purpose, and Johnston's script does a fine job of playing things close to the vest while also getting inside its characters' heads.

It wouldn't work without Helms. He plays Lippe's nubile innocence superbly, giving us hints and clues as to what has made him cut himself so completely off from the world emotionally. He is in many ways a child learning the ins and outs of how to survive in the wilderness, making mistakes and indulging in bad choices only to grow and blossom into a better, more well-rounded person.

The supporting cast is aces - Heche and Reilly in particular. In Heche's case, her character could easily be despised by the audience, since her secrets could turn people away almost instantaneously. She's far from perfect and she has issues of her own, but because her heart is so clearly in the right place and because the actress encapsulates all of her complexities so subtly, Joan becomes endearing, someone you silently cheer for as she helps Tim along his path towards emotional maturity.

As for Reilly, at first Dean Ziegler looks like a man right out of the Oscar-nominee's foul-mouthed comedic playbook. But once you get past the surface, once the film expands and allows you to take a deeper look, I quickly realized that Dean was much more than the sum of his nefarious parts. While rude and uncouth, the guy is also bracingly honest. More than that, he's as true a friend as any you can imagine. Reilly encompasses all of these traits with a brazen authority that borders on spectacular.

Not everything works. The plot takes a gigantic left turn during the final act that had me a little astonished, Arteta and Johnston going to some pretty dark places I'm not entirely sure were needed or justified. For me, they take Tim a bit too far, and while I respect the fearlessness with which they depict his ultimate descent, that doesn't mean I enjoyed what they deign to do to him.

Cedar Rapids is a hugely enjoyable sensation that had me wanting to give it a standing ovation. Arteta confidently conducts things behind the scenes, leading his cast of pros to a finish line so wonderfully amusing and heartfelt it manages to erase the majority of the minor missteps the production sometimes made along the way. The film deserves to be something of a hit, and here's hoping audiences finally come to realize that as far as intelligent, character-driven comedy is concerned, this is a director who keeps delivering the goods.

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