The Kind Midwesterner archetype is an endlessly fruitful comedic target for films, as the Coen brothers’ Fargo showed so unforgettably in 1996. Their unflappable pleasantness and refreshing lack of blasé detachment serve to make them the ideal unself-conscious goofs, around which countless funny situations may be conceived. Cedar Rapids—the new Ed Helms vehicle co-starring John C. Reilly, Isiah Whitlock Jr. (a.k.a. Clay Davis of The Wire), and Anne Heche—follows strongly in this tradition and, to the film’s credit, doesn’t cruelly eviscerate its characters and setting as much as gently and lovingly rib them.
Ed Helms stars as Tim Lippe, an insurance salesman from Brown Valley, Wisc., who leaves home for the first time to fly to Cedar Rapids, Iowa for the American Strategic Management Institute conference, where he hopes to win his company the Two Diamonds award for excellence in insurance salesmanship. Helms is utterly disarming in this role, playing Tim with fragility, sensitivity, and a heroic sense of altruism. His co-stars inhabit their characters with similar realism, Reilly in particular mitigating his character’s negative reputation as a drunken buffoon with his rough-hewn affability. Nobody here is an insensitive caricature.
However, despite its endearingly big heart, Cedar Rapids falters somewhat. In an interview with the AV Club, Helms mentioned that “the value from a career standpoint of television versus movies has, over the last 10 years, become harder to distinguish,” implying that his starring role in this film is not necessarily going to grant him a higher profile than his role in The Office. While Helms said this from a personal standpoint, his remark speaks to the increasingly noticeable difference in quality between comedy in mainstream television and film: broadly speaking, the former tends to be superior. By virtue of the medium’s episodic format, mainstream television comedies can sacrifice depth for jokes on a local basis and flesh its characters out over a longer period of time, while film comedies must (in general) make a steadfast commitment to one or make a half-hearted attempt at both.
This is the trap that Cedar Rapids falls into. It wants both a big heart and big, debauched, The Hangover-type laughs, but the two don’t quite fit together. Jokes about Tim’s coworker’s death by autoerotic asphyxiation don’t fit with the film’s low-key aesthetic, and a sequence in which Tim smokes crack with local prostitute Bree (played by Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development fame) and gets beaten up at a rural house party is incongruously dynamic and intense (though, in its defense, this scene does give fans of The Wire a special gift: Clay Davis doing an impression of Omar Little). The film is lumpy, structurally speaking, because of its forced adherence to a predictable narrative arc. Characters reveal their wounds and weaknesses in monologues, and scenes shift dynamics too quickly and jarringly. There’s a good movie here, but it’s stuck in the shell of a mainstream comedy.