Cineworld Glasgow, 30.4.11

An introverted, socially awkward insurance salesman, Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), is sent to an annual insurance sales conference when his colleague dies, tasked with winning the award of best small insurance business for the third year in a row, thereby saving the business, and the jobs of the 6 people who work there.  But at the hotel, Tim is sidetracked by various misadventures, led astray by his fellow insurance salesmen, before eventually overcoming the odds and saving the day.  That’s basically it.  It’s a common comedy plot, the fish out of water simpleton who triumphs and learns to be a better person along the way. To be fair to Cedar Rapids, it doesn’t claim to be anything original, and it uses its premise to play out some familiar scenes – Tim forced into singing in front of a large crowd at the karaoke night, Tim caving to peer pressure and getting drunk followed by a night of debauchery, Tim getting along with the attractive female despite his social ineptitude, and eventually sleeping with her.  These all contain some funny moments, mainly from the formidable John C. Reilly as the drunken, outspoken, Dean Ziegler, and the underused Isiah Whitlock Jnr. as Ronald Wilkes.  Whitlock Jnr. gets to riff on his most famous role as Senator Clay Davis in TV’s magnificent The Wire, as Ronald announces its his favourite show, and later uses an impressive impersonation of that shows memorable character Omar in order to diffuse a fight that Tim has stumbled into.

Cedar Rapids is a comedy, but it would still be nice if it could at least follow some sort of logic.  Why would not winning the award mean the business would automatically close?  And if this is the case, why on earth would the business owner, Bill (Stephen Root) send someone so obviously out of his depth as Tim in order to save the business, and, as it turns out, the deal that Bill has agreed to sell the business?  Equally, there are some forced narrative points – the hotel is overbooked, so Ziegler has to share with Tim and Ronald, moments after Bill has warned Tim to steer clear of him – to go along with unbelievable characterisation – would Anne Heche’s confident, attractive Joan really show any interest whatsoever in Tim? Only to supply the audience with laughs in a comedy such as this, one suspects.

Reilly has fun with the best lines, liberally spraying foul-mouthed insults at all and sundry, and the best slapstick moments, drunkenly stripping and jumping into the hotel swimming pool with a bin lid on his head. But for all the good moments he has, there are other moments that make you wonder why an actor of his stature feels the need to take on these roles.  For every film that Reilly stands out in, as one of the best character actors America has to offer, there is increasingly a coarse, dumb comedy on which his talents are wasted.  For every Boogie Nights (1997, P.T. Anderson) there is now a Step Brothers (2008, Adam McKay), for every A Prairie Home Companion (2006, Robert Altman), a Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007, Jake Kasdan), and for every Magnolia (1999, P.T. Anderson), a Talladega Nights (2006, Adam McKay).  Indeed, it is these moments, some shared by other cast members, that undermine what could have been a simple, charming comedy.

The writers, director and/or studio, obviously scared that they may bore their target teenage audience feel the need to throw in the usual smattering of toilet humour, albeit tamer than a lot of recent US comedies.  So, we have a scene where Tim is sitting on the toilet preparing for his presentation, when a drunken Ziegler barges in, before stopping to comment on the foul smell that Tim has created.  “A dodgy yogurt” claims Tim, but we haven’t seen him eat a yogurt or show any symptoms of an upset stomach, this isn’t a punchline to a well set up joke, just a random scene that comes from nowhere and adds nothing to the overall plot or characterisation.  It’s just an opportunity to have some gross out humour, and it stands out as poorly conceived.  By the time we get to the obligatory end credit skits, John C. Reilly is reduced to, yes, lighting his own ‘fart’, complete with poor CGI flame, for utterly no reason.  It is the culmination of a string of dumb jokes that fall flat.

Similar to the ill-judged moments of comedy are some, frankly, dubious morals.  Joan cheats on her husband and kids back home by seducing and sleeping with Tim.  While Tim is distraught as he believes he has betrayed his occasional lover, Macy (Sigourney Weaver), Joan simply explains that what happens in Cedar Rapids stays in Cedar Rapids, which suggests this adultery is an annual event, and perfectly acceptable.  The character of Bree (Alia Shawkat), the hotel prostitute, is equally compromised.  Again, present mainly as a standard comic tick, as Tim initially mistakes her for a friendly local, she soon whisks him off to a party, on the way introducing him to cannabis and later at the party supplying him with cocaine.  Hard drugs for comic laughs? The film seems to suggest that Tim needs to take cocaine as part of his growing in to a fully rounded human.  There is no other apparent reason for its casual inclusion.

Ultimately, Cedar Rapids falls flat as the cast struggle to keep the stale premise fresh even given its’  brief running time.  Occasional laugh-out moments are swamped by more misses than hits, lapses in logic and more importantly lapses in judgement from film-makers and actors.  It offers nothing new from the hundreds of similar comedies from the past twenty years, and by comparison, falls short of the best of those.

Film Rating: 2 out of 5.

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