Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cedar Rapids

Spoiler alert-o-meter: A couple spoilers ahead, but nothing to worry your pretty little head about.

In Cedar Rapids, Ed Helms plays small-town insurance salesman Tim Lippe who, due to the death of a co-worker, is chosen by his boss (Stephen Root) to represent his company, Brown Star Insurance, at the annual ASMI awards in Cedar Rapids Iowa. Lippe’s company has won the coveted Two Diamond award for the past few years, and it’s his job to see his company continues the tradition.

Lippe lives in the house he grew up in, even though his parents are both passed and he’s well into his thirties. He’s set in his ways and easily impressed, but he’s not stupid or a rube, just stuck in his adolescent world. He even sleeps with his 7th grade teacher, Macy Vanderhei. In bed, post you-know-what, he smiles in genuine disbelief in his luck at dating the hot teacher of his dreams. Sigourney Weaver plays Macy beautifully straight – no winking allowed.

Lippe is both excited about flying to the big city and nervous about his one-on-one presentation with the president of ASMI, Orin Helgesson (played by wonderful character actor and That 70s Show dad, Kurtwood Smith). When Lippe gets to Cedar Rapids even his rental car makes him excited. It’s a sign that he’s moving up in the world, that he’s being trusted to represent Brown Star at the conference. When he calls Macy to tell her he misses her we cringe knowing she doesn’t miss him in the same way, but smile because it’s refreshing to see his guileless love.

The motel where the conference is being held is full of insurance salespeople from the region. Lippe falls in with an odd but likable group. There’s genial, nerdy Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who talks like a cross between your elementary school principal and a synthesized computer voice. Anne Heche plays Joan Ostrowski-Fox, married with children, who uses the annual convention as a brief getaway from her family obligations. (What happens in Cedar Rapids is nobody’s damn business). Then there’s John C. Reilly as the wildly inappropriate Dean Ziegler (Deanzie) whom Lippe has been warned away from because of a rumor he poached clients from Brown Star.

During the conference we discover that Ronald, Joan, and Deanzie are exactly the way they seem but also not what you expect. Maybe because most movie's stories are written starting with the plot, characters seemingly retrofitted along the way to suit each plot beat. Cedar Rapids has been written like a short story, starting from the ground up with the characters first.

The movie is a collection of wonderful moments. Each scene is a delight, each plot point a perfect compliment to the last, until, by the time the credits rolled I only wanted to stay to find out what happened next (and I did—stay for the credits for some bonus scenes). The ending, while perhaps a little forced, a little too perfect, actually makes real sense considering what we learn about each character and their lives along the way.

The movie doesn’t judge the events contained in its moments, it presents details in such a way that we aren’t watching things happen, we are riding shotgun as a surrogate lens that observes without malice or bias. I knew Lippe would do the right thing, the right thing for him whatever that would be. So I didn’t watch the movie with an eye to interact by rooting for him. I wasn’t emotionally tied to what he did, because as he moves through the weekend, I trusted him to realize who his real friends were, and how the ones in power turned out to be the real backstabbing assholes.

Lippe’s reach is short but attainable: he doesn’t shoot for the moon, because he can only see the top of the roof. And that’s enough. And maybe, if there’s a judgment to be found in the movie, it’s that we should all shoot a little lower for the small successes that mean more, instead of hoping we’ll win the lottery or pray our way into heaven’s boxseat. The chances of either happening are slim; shooting for what you can see can ultimately brings more happiness and fulfillment.

Fearing he’ll lose his job, which up until now how been his life, Lippe does what he predecessor did in order to ensure the Two Diamond award for Brown Star. But of course it’s the wrong thing to do. And when Tim finally does the right thing, both you and his new friends are rooting for him.

Cedar Rapids was released six weeks ago and has only played in a few hundred theaters nationwide. Part of the reason I wanted to see the movie was to find out why a movie that looked mainstream hadn’t been treated like it with a wider release. Director Miguel Arteta whose previous movies include The Good Girl, Youth in Revolt, and Chuck and Buck, here showcases wonderful comic timing and a thoughtful honesty in presenting his characters as real people, who swear and fight and do drugs and embrace or deny religion and cheat on their spouses.

The men and women of Cedar Rapids are flawed, but not depressed about it or alienated because of it. In one weekend Tim Lippe discovers that his fears about people who act and do things differently are not to be shunned. Maybe America likes its funny in easily digestible slices of pap, the same way it likes its drama with feel-good trimmings and well-demarcated narrative beats of tragedy and redemption.

Cedar Rapids deserves to be a mainstream hit, but that would mean that America would have to discover this lovely, carefully hand-crafted, beautifully written piece of filmmaking. And that would make me jealous, like a music snob who has to share his favorite underground band with the rest of the world after they get a hit record. But I can tell you, dear audience, about Cedar Rapids because you are few and you are discerning and I want the movie to find people and people to find it. Be the first to see Cedar Rapids in your neighborhood. If it’s not playing at a theater near you then pre-order the DVD release. And tell them the Unreliable Narrator sent you.


Theater location: Landmark Theater, Waltham, Sunday, March 20, 1:50 matinee. Price $7.75. Viewed with Liz. Snacks-Twizzlers (fresh), Diet Coke.

Coming Attractions:

Water for Elephants: A Big McHuge Hollywood adaptation of the bestselling novel about a traveling circus, starring that guy from Twilight, Reese Witherspoon, and that guy who won best actor last year. Magical whooey. Made the cover of this week's EW.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Morgan Spurlock makes a movie about making a movie about how to make a movie paid for entirely with product endorsements. Not sure I would watch this movie, based on the principle that if I did I would just be paying to see an advertisement for...oh hell, that's what we do every time we watch a video online, a TV show, read any article or listen to any podcast, and of course watch any movie.

Super. Rainn Wilson plays some shlubby guy who gets dumped by his hot wife, Liv Tyler, who is seeing the much more interesting Kevin Bacon. Rainn decides to become a superhero and his buddy Ellen Page gets in the act as his sidekick. Looks like Juno, but with a different story, and entirely different cast and director. Except for Ellen Page. Also starring Nathan Fillion, Linda Cardellini, Michael Rooker, and Gregg Henry.

Win Win. Getting glowing reviews. Looks cute, in a Sundance kind of way. With Amy Ryan and Paul Giamatti. Synopsis from "Tom McCarthy, acclaimed writer/ director of THE VISITOR and THE STATION AGENT, explores the allegiances and bonds between unlikely characters with a lighter touch in his new film. Struggling attorney Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), who moonlights as a high school wrestling coach, becomes legal guardian of an elderly client in an attempt to help keep his practice afloat. When the client’s teenage grandson runs away from home and shows up on his grandfather’s doorstep, Mike’s family life and his wrestling team are turned upside down. Mike’s win-win proposition turns into something much more complicated than he ever bargained for. McCarthy’s deft touch balancing drama and comedy, broken hearts and poignant humanity is at play in WIN WIN."


Robin said...

I hadn't heard much buzz about "Cedar Rapids" but I want to see this after reading your positive review! I also like the idea that maybe sometimes we should aim a little lower to really attain our heart's desires. Thanks for a great review!

Dell Smith said...

If it playing on the Cape? I bet it comes out on video in another month. Maybe it'll find it's audience on the small screen.