I say with a smirk, a shrug, an ashamed mumble: I am a native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And as a native, I could fill a book with its contradictions—somewhere between (sub)urban sprawl and rural scrub, equal parts an oasis of progressive cosmopolitanism and the “real America” of TV news B-roll footage featuring obese people ambling through malls. Instead, I’m confined to judging its representation in Miguel Arteta’s new movie, which posits The Crapids (in local parlance) as Sin City for ineffable dillweeds. In this respect, yes, it’s just like being there.
The cornsilk-thin plot of Cedar Rapids revolves around Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), a bubbly insurance agent and loveable hayseed from Brown Valley, Wisconsin, who is sent to represent his firm at a big annual insurance convention after the company’s star agent accidentally pulls a Michael Hutchence. Golly-geeing all the way, he enters an overbooked hotel full of punning, unnecessary-abbreviation-loving, back-slapping, Old Spice–soaked insurance salesmen. Taken under the wings of superego/id duo Ronald “The Ronimal” Wilkes (The Wire’s Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Dean “The Deanzie” Ziegler (John C. Reilly), the earnest Lippe undergoes the standard bro-comedy personal makeover: he finally lets loose, get drunk, screws the hottest chick available, and stands up to the corrupt association’s chairman and his greedy boss.
Helms’s physicality and line readings are so flawlessly, casually prepubescent that they put a new spin on an otherwise played-out manchild type. He’s like a nephew in a world full of uncles. Meanwhile, as the Byronic hero, Reilly gets most of the big laughs, notably in a scene in which he gives a wilted Lippe a pep talk, sipping a Bloody Mary and dressed only in boxer shorts and tan socks. The film’s overarching comedic goal is a prolonged sense of discomfort that, at its high points, will make you cringe and snicker in equal measure. To wit: the palpable sexual tension between Lippe and Macy Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver), his former seventh-grade teacher and girlfriend back in Brown Valley—his loving gazes suggesting at any moment that he’ll finally slip up and call her “Mommy.” Conversely, this aesthetic of comedic awkwardness, combined with the seemingly endless slew of lame, barely-there jokes, leaves the impression that you’re watching an extended auto insurance commercial, with a typically bland protagonist.
While Cedar Rapids peddles a rather myopic portrait of masculinity, its women are surprisingly nuanced. A nearly unrecognizable Anne Heche plays Joan Ostrowski-Fox, a married-with-children insurance agent who effortlessly holds her own with the alcohol intake and arm-punching humor of her male colleagues. She beds Lippe with little remorse, and afterwards advises him that, in spite of the crippling guilt he feels, what happens in Cedar Rapids should stay in Cedar Rapids. I’m not suggesting that gender equality necessarily entails women assuming iniquitous character traits, but it’s refreshing to see a woman, let alone a mother, who doesn’t confuse sexual conquest with consumerism. She does it because she can, because she wants to. The candor with which her post-infidelity phone-call home is depicted is one of a handful of genuine moments in a movie that is otherwise winking in premise and execution. Alia Shawkat (who played Maeby on Arrested Development) is similarly complicated as an insouciant hooker who escorts Lippe to a rural house party and introduces him to meth inside her uncle’s rusted-out Chevy. She’s as hopeless as he is hopeful, yet they manage to learn from each other without exchanging body fluids.
The risks Cedar Rapids takes may not always pay off, but as a general rule, I would advise spending 86 minutes of your life with the movie rather than the city itself.