Crudity and Cliché Found in Cedar Rapids
- Friday, March 11, 2011
DVD Release Date: June 21, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: March 11, 2011 (wide)
Rating: R (for strong language, crude and sexual content, and drug use)
Run Time: 87 min.
Director: Miguel Arteta
Cast: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Stephen Root, Kurtwood Smith, Siguourney Weaver, Alia Shawkat
Striving to be a raunchy comedy with a heart of gold, Cedar Rapids ultimately undercuts its own potential. There’s a lot of talent here—not only assembled but actually on display throughout—but, despite sincere attempts at character development, the script resorts to crudity and cliché. Worse yet, it feels like a movie set in the heartland made by coastal liberals who pity those in flyover country (and mistake that pity for caring).
Set in the aw-shucks world of the Northern Midwest, Ed Helms (TV’s The Office) plays Tim Lippe, a small-town insurance salesman who was not only born-and-raised in rural Wisconsin but, even now by his late 30s, hasn’t traveled outside of its folksy confines. That changes, though, when Tim’s boss asks him to represent the agency at an important regional insurance convention in the “big city” of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where an important industry award is on the line (and Tim is required to win, or be fired).
Cedar Rapids becomes Tim’s Las Vegas, where his innocent bubble bursts and the ways of the world open up to him: temptation, corruption, and the kind of people he’s only ever seen on TV before (look—a real African-American! Oh my, a prostitute!). It’s not that he easily gives into temptations—he even shuns them for awhile on moral grounds (before eventually caving on a guilt-ridden bender)—so much as he doesn’t know what to do with or how to process them. In short, Tim is a caricature of naiveté surrounded by adults who’ve grown comfortable in their own moral compromises or depravity. They’re not here for the latest developments in the insurance industry; they’re here to have a good time. And of course, Tim has more to learn from them than they from him.
Tim’s fellow conference attendees include Joan (Anne Heche), a mostly happily-married mother who allows herself sexual indiscretions on these annual trips (what happens in Cedar Rapids…); Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly)—or Deanzy—a brash and vulgar divorcee; Ronald (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.), a single middle-aged African-American suburbanite who’s content with the simple button-downed life, and Orin (Kurtwood Smith) the uptight conference chairman who insists his members adhere to conservative biblical morals.
To suggest, though, that these characters are simply one-note would be unfair (though one is; I’ll give you one guess). Good effort is made to go beyond caricature and create interesting, dimensional people—and they do. Joan isn’t a sleazy temptress; she’s actually caring. Ronald isn’t just a square; he’s wise and understanding. Deanzy may be an immoral degenerate, but his conduct masks deeper hurts and he genuinely means well. Sincere performances by the ensemble make this motley crew likeable and sympathetic.
Where the film falls short—indeed, sells itself short—is in how it simplifies both hero and villain, i.e. the naïve Tim and the moralistic Orin. Despite an endearing performance from Ed Helms, Tim Lippe is written as too much of a rube. To be unsophisticated is one thing, but to act so wide-eyed and gullible as if he just got off the train from Mayberry borders on insulting. A sense of conviction gives him some needed depth, and you can’t not like Ed Helms, but the overall characterization still sniffs of condescension toward rural Americans.
Then there’s Orin, the conference chair and rigid proponent of biblical and family values. His disdainful passive-aggressiveness is bad enough, but worse yet he’s also a hypocrite. For Tim to win the coveted award that holds his job in the balance, Orin doesn’t merely expect a bribe in return but actually demands it. Behind closed doors, the virtuous leader is really a selfish fraud and unabashedly so. Meanwhile, Tim’s “ethically suspect” new friends (who Orin has sneered and mocked) are now suddenly honorable because, well, at least they’re honest.
Look, I’m all for humanizing people who are morally flawed and also for exposing moral hypocrisy (religious or otherwise), but when the humanizing only occurs in one instance and not the other then a story alienates and feels preachy (even if mildly so, as Cedar Rapids is here). Consequently, the lesson Tim learns (and the film conveys) is that moral relativity is freeing so long as you live sincerely by our own code, while moral absolutism is an antiquated ideal and the people who preach it are really its worst offenders.
That message, while there, isn’t ham-fisted and brazen. The tone of the film is so light, in fact, that I doubt the filmmakers were consciously agenda-driven. It’s rather, I suspect, a classic example of a relativist worldview unconsciously emerging. There’s no sense of deep malice or a sinister objective against virtue but, simply, the common credo of, “Hey man, we all just need to lighten up and be cool.”
The hard-R language and content make Cedar Rapids play like an indie-version of Helms’ The Hangover, and so it will likely play more to the people it affirms and less to those it belittles. Still, whether the derision is intentional or not, it’s difficult to get past the construct that both sophistication and graciousness are directly related to urban exposure while rural culture breeds simpleminded repression. Small-town people aren’t bad; apparently, they’re just stupid in a cute sort of way.
- Drugs/Alcohol Content: Several scenes of drinking (at meals, in bars) and occasional drunkenness (that leads to other immoral behavior). A house party filled with alcohol and drug use. Tim gets buzzed on cocaine.
- Language/Profanity: All forms of profanity used throughout (including f--k, s--t, a--), the Lord’s name taken in vain in multiple variations, as well as many sexually crude words and references (especially by Deanzy).
Sexual Content/Nudity: An early scene of intercourse (explicit in action, but no nudity). Rear male nudity. Two naked men hug in a locker room (but only seen from waist-up). Joan strips down to her underwear before getting into a pool, tempts Tim to join her; he does, and then she removes her bra while underwater. They embrace and kiss.
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