PARK CITY - When Fox Searchlight arrives at Sundance or Toronto, it always feels to me like the world's most elaborate test screening process. These are films, after all, that already have trailers in theaters, that already have release dates, and that arrive with the full support of a studio arm firmly in place.
That's not a slam on these films. One of the things that it gives the studio is a chance to have all the press in one place at one time, and "Cedar Rapids" is a film that is made by people who have come up through the indie system. Screenwriter Phil Johnston made short films originally as a writer and producer, and is the writer of Alexander Payne's next film, "Nebraska," and director Miguel Arteta is responsible for films like "Chuck and Buck" and "Star Maps." This may be a studio-scale film, but its heart is in the right place.
Ultimately, your feelings on "Cedar Rapids" will depend on how much heart matters to you, because as a film, it's a little soft, but it means well, and there is a genuine charm to it. Ed Helms stars as Tim Lippe, a stunted guy who basically grew up as part of the insurance company he works for, and who seems perfectly fine living his life in a small town with no ambition at all. When the guy who normally goes to the big annual insurance industry convention in Cedar Rapids dies of auto-erotic asphyxiation, Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root), Tim's boss, decides to send Tim instead. After all, the "coveted Two Diamonds award" is on the line, and Lemke, who won the award year after year for the company, has now hurt their chances with the nature of his death, since part of what it's given for is moral decency. Krogstad figures there is no one as essentially, effortlessly moral as Tim.
That's a big part of what makes Helms so interesting onscreen, and let's be honest… Tim Lippe is really just a variation on the characters that Helms has played on "The Office" or, more notably, in "The Hangover." With many comic performers, the key to success is to develop a general type that audiences respond to, and then find ways to tweak that persona, either playing to or against it, but always aware that it's part of the perception an audience walks in with. Helms is a very smart performer, but you can't fake the sort of grounded Midwestern decency that seems to be part of his DNA.
That's important, because the film is all about what happens when you send that total innocent to the "big city," which is Cedar Rapids in this case, and he is suddenly dropped into a world he's not wired to handle. Thanks to the influence of the new friends he makes at the convention, including Dean (John C. Reilly), Joan (Anne Heche), and Ronald (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), Tim goes wild, but at the same time, his unflappable decency starts to work on them as well. The head of the convention, Orin (Kurtwood Smith), frowns on drugs and drink and promiscuity, and he's the one Tim has to impress to win the Two Diamonds, so of course, every bit of bad behavior plays out in full view of Orin.
There are a number of other performers whose work fills out the film at the edges, like Sigourney Weaver as Tim's ex-teacher who is now his girlfriend, or Alia Shawkat as a hooker working the convention, or Rob Corddry as a freaky scary lunatic at a party, and the film picks up steam as it goes. The first third of the film isn't bad, but it is a little soft, and it's only once the film really gets moving that the laughs start landing more consistently. Especially because of Helms, you can't help but think of "The Hangover" while you're watching this, but the film is really about this man-child who has spent so much of his life in second gear finally growing up in every way, and over the course of just three days. The epiphanies feel honest, if unspectacular, and by the end of the film, I did have an affection for the chemistry between the leads in the film.
Heche is one of those people who I only really like when she's got a good piece of material, but in those moments, I remember that she can be very good. She and Helms have an easy energy between them, and it's a strong foundation for the rest of the film. John C. Reilly is big and loud, a party animal who doesn't care if he ever wins Orin's stupid award, and the single worst influence on Tim. Meanwhile, Joan represents an adult relationship he's never had, and Ronald represents a world he's totally unfamiliar with, and the way all of these friendships gel is a real testament to the actors. Isiah Whitlock Jr. is so permanently affixed to his role as Clay Davis on "The Wire" for me that seeing him play Ronald served to finally shock me out of that way of thinking. He's very funny, and yet plays it totally straight. Not easy. And Reilly's played this sort of role before, but his gift is always grounding these nincompoops with real insecurity and with well-observed character detail.
Arteta's work is solid, and the film looks like a big bright studio comedy. I can't honestly say that you'll be blown away by "Cedar Rapids" or that it's a must-see, but the film's gentle charms are persuasive, and on the whole, I enjoyed the time I spent with it.
More from Sundance, including the story of last night's insane and explosive "The Woman" screening, as the day continues.
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