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Cedar Rapids

Reviewed by Richard McCulloch.

Director Miguel Arteta
Length 86 mins
Certificate 15 / R
Rating *****-----
Filmmaking: 3  Personal enjoyment: 2

Photo from the article Trailer.

I had been watching Cedar Rapids for almost half an hour, and I was worried. There was still at least two thirds of its running time to go, but I genuinely felt as though I would be leaving the cinema having barely laughed twice. My prediction was thankfully proven wrong, but the film’s frustrating attempts at generic hybridity finally undermine its better moments.

Protagonist Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), a wide-eyed small-town insurance salesman, cuts quite the tragic figure. Overshadowed by his more confident colleague and sleeping with his 7th grade school teacher (Sigourney Weaver), Lippe commands little respect from anybody, his quiet contentment stemming only from his naivety and lack of social awareness. His colleague’s sudden death (from auto-erotic asphyxiation, no less) soon thrusts Lippe into unfamiliar territory, forcing him to represent his company at the notoriously debauched Cedar Rapids conference in Iowa. The future of his fellow employees now depends on whether or not he can adapt to the change in lifestyle and win the prestigious Double Diamond award for his company.

Billed as a fish-out-of-water comedy, Cedar Rapids actually treads a rather confused path between several comedy subgenres. Many of the laughs are in fact so diluted that the metaphorical fish in this comedy seems barely out of the water at all. Instead, it is merely poking its head up, straining to listen to the sound of John C. Reilly talk about “chocolate/vanilla love sandwiches,” or shout “rug munchers!” in the presence of Anne Heche.

Other recent comedies of extended adolescence have been far more accomplished at combining and negotiating different comedy conventions (The 40-Year-Old Virgin [2005], Knocked Up [2007], and Zack and Miri Make a Porno [2008] spring to mind). Cedar Rapids aspires to the sensibilities of far too many disparate comic modes, failing to truly realise any of them. Director Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt [2009]) and writer Phil Johnston appear to have little sense of whether they were developing a romantic comedy, a bromance, a gross-out comedy, or a dry, quirky indie flick à la Napoleon Dynamite (2009). Claudia Puig of the USA Today even went as far as labeling it, “a Frank-Capra-meets-the-Farrelly-brothers comedy.” Confused indeed.

The film is by no means terrible, managing to be fitfully amusing and in places somewhat charming. Even the crass and immature Dean Ziegler (Reilly) becomes sympathetic towards the end, since the film’s characterisation is, at the very least, strong enough to provide a clear idea of where our sentiments should lie. Its problems, however, stem mostly from an absence of narrative direction, stripping these characters of their purpose. There are plenty of potentially redeeming aspects to Cedar Rapids, but with such a poorly established sense of why anything is happening, it is difficult to connect with any of the characters - whether to laugh at their social foibles or to take pleasure in their personal journeys.

Before leaving for the conference, Lippe’s boss says to him, “When I first met you, you were, what, 16? And I’m thinking, ‘Here’s a kid who’s gonna go places,’ and then somehow, you just didn’t.” Some films almost seem to write their own reviews.

This review was published on May 10, 2011.

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