Cedar Rapids Dir. Miguel Arteta

[Fox Searchlight; 2011]

Styles: comedy
Others: The Good Girl, About Schmidt, Up in the Air

As if it were its main character moving in reverse, Cedar Rapids is a movie full of promise that will end up disappointing you. It’s about a rural Wisconsin insurance salesman named Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), a man who is at times heartfelt, at times a clown, but who has never been very ambitious — most likely because he isn’t too bright. Over a weekend seminar for insurance salesman in the titular city, where he’s been sent to schmooze his company into some credentials, Tim learns the name of the insurance game as well as a few things about his own moral fiber. He emerges from a bruising series of comic escapades a better man, a go-getter, and sacrifices little of his down-home optimism and wholesome good sense in the process. None of which would be a bad thing if the movie didn’t sacrifice its jokes getting him there. Sadly it does, and in so doing, it runs Tim’s trajectory in reverse: it begins with a clever setup that subtly suggests it’ll be funny and intelligent, but as its story progresses, moving at times gracefully, at times bumblingly, it loses steam and winds up settling for simplistic wholesomeness over real accomplishment.

What it does accomplish is some good performances, albeit ones that have to be satisfied with hinting at complex emotions as opposed to nailing them. Most prominent is John C. Reilly’s Dean Zigler. He’s introduced as a customer-poaching rival to Tim, but relations between the insurance men seem to quickly warm. Zigler’s not such a bad guy, as Reilly plays him, he’s just required to change his tune from brash, foul-mouthed shark to wounded everyman at the whim of the script. Reilly is game for it; he’s an actor who can play just about anything. But given his talent, he deserves a role that’s been thought out past acrobatic profanity and sentimental speeches. He can’t reasonably be asked to figure out how his character can be a functioning alcoholic who regularly makes an ass out of himself and a well-to-do insurance agent with loyal customers. Reilly does an impressive job of smoothing over the cracks, but the only world in which Zigler thrives is one in which insurance agents can be idiots. If that world were the movie’s joke — that these guys succeed because of their idiocy — this would be a clever movie. But this is a world where, in between antics, Tim gets to give an aw-shucks speech about the vital service insurance men provide to America — which, if true, they accomplish despite the contributions of Tim and Zigler.

Which, in turn, is Cedar Rapids’ essential problem. It begins by showing us a couple of funny, bumbling stereotypes, then tries to end by turning them into heroes, defenders of the good will that the insurance industry clearly has in its heart. Except nobody seems to have thought through exactly how this should be done. It’s as if director Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl, Youth in Revolt) were simply asking his cast to add a few somber notes to the script’s sheer comedy yet couldn’t quite bring himself to direct the whole thing as a drama. There’s an almost constant disconnect between the script, written as a farce (with TV-sitcom emotion), and the performances, by actors who are better than their material and bring more pathos to the film than it deserves.

It’s really a shame this movie was done by Arteta — a director who’s better than mediocre but far from great and thus not equipped to make a great movie out of mediocre material. While it’s easy to imagine this exact script winding up a whole lot worse in the hands of someone less stylish than Arteta — Dennis Dugan, say, with Adam Sandler in the lead — it’s just as easy (though much more frustrating) to imagine Alexander Payne taking this material, changing what he needs (not all that much), and making a Midwest comedy with the same funny-sad balance of jokes and emotion as About Schmidt.

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