Cedar Rapids

Rating:

Insurance Boys Gone Wild

Main Cast: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche

Director: Miguel Arteta

It’s hard to overcome a weak premise.  It isn’t impossible – with good writing and casting Jerry Seinfeld made a hit out of a show about nothing – but it’s darn hard.  The cast of Cedar Rapids gives it a valiant effort but in the end is simply overcome.

Cedar Rapids rests on the flimsy notion that a small town insurance salesman going to his fist regional convention can possibly be interesting.  Ed Helms plays Tim Lippe, a small fish in a small pond at the Wisconsin insurance company at which he’s an earnest salesman.  When his flashy colleague meets with an embarrassing and untimely demise, he’s pressed into service as the Brown Insurance representative to the annual insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  As he is backward, naïve and a giant small town dork with an emotional age of approximately 11, Tim is unprepared for the “big city” and bonds with his questionable but far more experienced roommates as they show him the ropes.

Wow.  That looks even worse now that I’ve written it down.  But Ed Helms is a funny guy who I’ve grown to appreciate over the years.  I wasn’t a huge fan when he was on The Daily Show, but didn’t actively dislike his contributions.  I thought he was annoying when he first appeared on The Office, but Andy Bernard grew on me.  Tim Lippe is actually a lot like Andy Bernard, but Tim is more soft-spoken.  Helms gives the role his best shot – Tim is sweet and honest and awkward.  But he doesn’t have enough to do.  No matter how nice a guy he is, how much real trouble can he get into at an insurance convention?  Because the writing isn’t outstandingly creative the answer is not much.  There’s an encounter with a woman (played reasonably well by Anne Heche) the beginning, middle and end of which can be seen coming a mile away.  There’s some corruption within the organization that he discovers to his naïve dismay – also entirely predictable.  These scenarios contain some funny moments, but not enough.

John C. Reilly co-stars as the obnoxious Dean Zeigler, drunk, stupid and generally foul.  He tries to morph his character as the movie goes along into a good guy, but he doesn’t get a lot of chances.  There’s nothing to be done with this character but play him for crude laughs, and there are a few of those.

There are some little gems scattered here and there throughout Cedar Rapids.  Kurtwood Smith (Red from That 70s Show) shows up as the God preaching leader of the insurance organization and does his small role proud.  Isaiah Whitlock, Jr. as Tim’s original roommate is the most consistently funny cast member.  His mannered speech and measured delivery makes his lines quite a bit funnier than they have any right to be.  Also look for Alia Shawkat, who you’ll recognize but not be able to figure out from where, as a streetwalker who befriends Tim.  She played Maeby Funke on Arrested Development and hasn’t lost her touch.

What Cedar Rapids boils down to is a small premise that leads to a small film that has to try and fill too much time.  The farcical elements are patchy, the fish out of water element is weak and the characters aren’t as engaging as they need to be when the premise is so thin.  It isn’t a bad movie, it’s just one that lost its uphill battle against its own limited material.  Director Miguel Arteta and writer Phil Johnston needed to give their characters a bigger setting with more possibilities, snappier dialogue and at least one plot point that wasn’t completely predictable.  2 ½ stars out of 5 for the valiant efforts of the cast.

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