The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Cedar Rapids

Written by Richard McCulloch.

Photo from the article Cedar Rapids was promoted with the tagline, “Today is the first day… of the rest of his weekend.” Intended to evoke the tragicomic appeal of its central character, Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), the film’s tagline inadvertently does a sterling job of drawing attention to one of its major flaws. Familiar genre conventions and plot lines are mobilised, only to be subsequently diluted or abandoned altogether. It’s almost as though the marketing campaign is boasting about the film’s lack of narrative direction.

As irked as I was by this, however, I was nevertheless left pondering the movie’s puzzling generic hybridity long after it had finished. For a long time it takes on the appearance of a rom-com, until we eventually realise that Lippe’s ostensible love interest, Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), actually functions as part of an otherwise male friendship group. This in turn presents us with some interesting possibilities regarding the film’s approach to both gender and genre.

Is this a rom-com in which a mixed-sex group stands in for the leading lady? Is it a bromance that moves beyond the subgenre’s habitual homosociality and permits the inclusion of a woman? Could both of these even be true at the same time? For all its failings, Cedar Rapids actually offers a novel reassessment of contemporary gender and genre boundaries, and as such it is worth exploring these questions in more detail.

Certainly the film’s opening scenes are quick to establish that Lippe is to be pitied, having faded into the background at work, and in life more generally. It is abundantly clear that his relationship with one of his former schoolteachers, Macy Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver), is extremely one-sided. His enthusiastic declarations of love don’t exactly fall on deaf ears (she’s not that old), but her disinterested attitude towards him is enough to signal their incompatibility. As an older, divorced woman, she simply has different priorities, and does not want to be in a committed relationship. Whether or not this should be seen as proof of the film’s romantic comedy leanings is open to debate.

Lippe’s dysfunctional love life is undoubtedly highlighted early on in the narrative, but is it the key element that drives the story, or merely a symptom of his struggle to fit in with others? Does the film’s ending, which shows Lippe, Ostrowski-Fox, Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), and Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) starting their own insurance firm, suggest that the driving force behind Lippe’s personal quest is in fact not geared towards love, but friendship? One of the reasons why these questions are so difficult to answer is because Lippe’s own feelings about his circumstances are so ambiguous. Yes, we are encouraged to sympathise with him, but it is never made clear how happy or unhappy he really is. His love for Macy is all but unrequited, but he nevertheless travels to Cedar Rapids and speaks proudly that he is “pre-engaged” to her.

Our introduction to Joan is arguably the most telling piece of evidence that this film sets itself up as a romantic comedy. Tim first notices her in the mirror while running on a treadmill, before she catches his gaze and swiftly approaches him, accusing him of being a pervert. She soon reveals that she is joking, alleviating Lippe of his initial awkwardness and discomfort, and the couple exchange pleasantries. It is not quite on a par with two attractive thirty-year-old actors (playing teenagers, obviously) running into each other in a high school corridor, sending books flying in all directions, but if this is not a classic Hollywood meet cute, then I don’t know what is. What follows is a series of scenes in which the couple find themselves alone together, paired off for the scavenger hunt and sharing a meal together, before perching on a set of swings to discuss life experiences and ambitions. He speaks passionately of the potential that insurance work offers for helping people, leading to her dub him “a hero,” and “a Superman type.”

Bear in mind that all of this happens in spite of the early revelation that Joan is a good friend of Lippe’s roommates, the laddish Ziegler and the more mature Wilkes. It would be easy for her to be absorbed into this group of friends, especially since her penchant for brash banter and alcohol consumption would allow her to fit right in. By the time it reaches the halfway point, however, Cedar Rapids has established the emptiness of Tim Lippe’s life, drawn attention to his one-sided love life, and presented Joan above all others as someone who appreciates who he is and what he stands for. In short, in generic terms, they are ideally matched.

It is thus no surprise that after a night of heavy drinking, Tim and Joan eventually give in to temptation and sleep with each other. What is surprising is that somehow, by the time the film ends, they are not a couple. In fact, their sexual encounter appears to call a halt to the romantic narrative that had led us to this point. Lippe’s response the following day is, in spite of everything which preceded it, a combination of shock and disappointment. Appalled at his adulterous behaviour, he bursts into tears and seeks comfort from Joan, an image more in-keeping with a mother-son relationship than a romantic one.

Tim is a character that has been infantilised throughout the film, and shown to lack maturity and life experience in every aspect of his life. At work, Lippe’s boss laments his lack of progress since the age of sixteen, having failed to fulfil the potential he displayed at that age. Moreover, without wanting to delve too deeply into psychoanalysis, it must be said that his relationship with Macy Vanderhei seems more than a little Oedipal. That is, until we factor in the story that Lippe recounts from his childhood: it was his father who was accidentally killed at an early age, not his mother. Rather than serving as replacement mothers then, Tim’s romantic-but-ultimately-not-romantic attachment to Macy and Joan must surely represent his reliance on maternal figures throughout his life. Though the fact that Joan is at least his own age does suggest that his trip to Cedar Rapids has begun to provide him with a degree of independence.

Further proof of this lies in his relationship with the only other female character in the movie, Bree (Alia Shawkat), the prostitute who loiters outside the entrance to the hotel. I fully admit that I was initially at a complete loss in trying to explain her function in the film. Her only notable contribution to Tim’s journey is to take him to a drug-fuelled house party, where they dance and make out, before he is eventually beaten up and requires rescuing. Although it is doubtless a more extreme example, this is effectively just an elevation of the alcohol-fuelled hedonism that he had indulged in with Joan, Dean and Ronald earlier in the film. Similarly, although the house party scenario provides a convenient way for Lippe’s new group of friends to prove their dedication to him, this group had already been established.

The character of Bree therefore only acquires any sense of purpose when seen in relation to the other women of Cedar Rapids. Tracing the way in which Tim responds to each of them in turn, one can see a clear trajectory. Beginning with Macy and moving through to Joan and then Bree, the mother-son dynamic gradually recedes and is replaced by a more independent, less romantic one. By the end, he has even become more protective, insisting to Bree that she doesn’t have to settle for the lifestyle she currently leads.

Perhaps, then, we should not be surprised that when talking to the air stewardess on the trip home, he summarises events by declaring, “I got beat up, got completely blotto, and befriended a prostitute. It was awesome!” No mention of the convention, the bribery scandal he uncovered while there, or the fact that he is to go into business with his new friends, Joan, Dean, and Ronald. Instead, it is Bree, and his experiences with her, that epitomise Tim’s personal journey he went through at Cedar Rapids. He has moved from a closeted and confused man-child, to a more confident and independent man, and all it took was for him to find some people who could encourage him to get fantastically inebriated.

The decision to commit so strongly to the generic conventions of the romantic comedy and the bromance, only to ultimately follow through with neither, is admittedly a strange one. In doing so however, Cedar Rapids offers depictions of masculinity and femininity that go beyond some of the potential limitations of these genres. The combination of aesthetic and thematic stylings is so peculiar in places that I wonder whether the film has adhered too strongly to the message of its own narrative. Tim Lippe may have left his comfort zone, got hammered, and come out of it a new man, but the same cannot be said for the inebriated Cedar Rapids. This cinematic barfly will undoubtedly elicit a few laughs, but I’d be surprised if there are many who really want to spend much more time with it.

This Alternate Take was published on May 22, 2011.

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