So, in my review of The Beaver, I talked about the annual Hollywood Black List and how the movies that are always listed at the top of the black list usually turn out to be vaguely disappointing. Well, in that review, I failed to mention that The Beaver was not the only Black List film that I’ve seen (so far) in 2011. A few months ago, I saw the film that topped last year’s list, Cedar Rapids. (The Cedar Rapids screenplay, by the way, was written by Phil Johnston.)
Now, Cedar Rapids (which is scheduled to be released on DVD in June) actually had a pretty good run down in here in Dallas. Unlike Austin, Dallas is not a film-crazed city and — with only four theaters currently specializing in indie and art films — it’s usually a case of “you snooze, you lose” when it comes to seeing anything out of the mainstream. We’ll have a few hundred theaters all showing something like Avatar for half a year but a film like James Gunn’s Super will usually sneak in, play in one theater for two weeks, and then just as quickly vanish.
Cedar Rapids, however, stuck around for about a month and a half, playing exclusively at the Dallas Angelika. It took me a while to actually find the time to go see it (and, perhaps because of the whole Black List thing, I just didn’t feel much enthusiasm for seeing it) and, in fact, I ended up seeing it the last day it played at the Angelika.
As for why I wanted to see it — well, it had gotten some very positive reviews from critics who traditionally don’t give comedies good reviews so that piqued my interest. I knew that the film featured three of my favorite character actors — John C. Reilly, Stephen Root, and Thomas Lennon. The film was also being touted as a comeback for Anne Heche whose autobiography Call Me Crazy was a favorite book of a former roommate of mine. Finally, I wanted to see the film because it starred Ed Helms, who, at the time, I thought seriously might end up as the new boss on The Office.
Helms, in case you don’t know for some reason, plays Cornell graduate Andy Bernard on The Office. When he first appeared during the show’s third season, he was portrayed as an incredibly obnoxious preppy with an anger management problem and I loved how Helms so thoroughly threw himself into making Andy just the most annoying human being ever. Andy was eventually sent to anger management classes and, upon returning, the character has become less obnoxious and just more buffoonish and, in my opinion, a lot less entertaining. As well, with Jim and Pam now safely married, Andy ended up as the focus of some of the Office’s weakest episodes. In fact, Andy was the center of so many episodes earlier this season that I found myself wondering if the show’s producers weren’t perhaps trying to see how the audience would react to Ed Helms becoming the new star of the show. Since I had mixed feelings about that prospect, I felt that maybe Cedar Rapids would provide me with an answer.
In Cedar Rapids, Ed Helms plays Tim Lippe, an almost impossibly innocent insurance agent who is sent by his boss (Stephen Root, who appears to be the go-to guy when you need someone to play a friendly but vaguely threatening manager) to a regional conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Tim is ordered to conduct himself well, to go out of his way to impress the conference president (Kurtwood Smith), and to win the prestigious “Two Diamonds” Award. (The award has been won for the company in the past by Helms’ rival at the company who, at the beginning of the film, accidentally kills himself while practicing autoerotic asphyxiation. The rival is played by Thomas Lennon and I’m kinda sorry that Lennon didn’t have more scenes because seriously, he always makes me smile.)
After saying goodbye to his much older girlfriend (Sigourney Weaver, who is wasted in her cameo), Helms heads off for Cedar Rapids. This is a big deal for him because he’s the type of movie innocent who has never even been on a plane before. Helms arrives at Cedar Rapids determined to do the right thing but he soon discovers that he is rooming with Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a loud, crude, and cynical agent who indulges in every vice that Helms has been ordered to avoid. Needless to say, Helms initially tries to resist being drawn into Reilly’s orbit but soon, he finds himself being corrupted and enjoying it. Through Reilly, he meets yet another insurance agent (played by Anne Heche) that he soon finds himself falling in lust with. All this happens, of course, under the disapproving eye of Kurtwood Smith and Helms soon learns just how far he is expected to go to win that Two Diamonds Award…
As it might be obvious from the above description, Cedar Rapids is one of those films that attempts to be both a wild comedy and a poignant coming-of-age drama. And it succeeds very well at being a comedy and it does pretty good job of being a drama but it never manages to do both at the same time. The end result is an entertaining but wildly uneven film that never feels like it’s quite as good as it should be.
The film is at it’s best when it’s just Helms, Reilly, Heche, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. (playing another insurance agent) hanging out and BSing. Those scenes ring well and all four of these actors have a real ensemble chemistry together. You really do end up believing that Reilly, Heche, and Whitlock truly do care about their new friend and you just as strongly believe that Helms really is falling in love with Heche. These are the best scenes in the movie.
The film is less effective when it tries to be something more than just an ensemble comedy. It’s in these scenes — with Kurtwood Smith quoting bible verses and the Two Diamonds Award becoming a metaphor for all sorts of things — that the film gets heavy-handed and a bit boring. I also have a feeling that these scenes are probably the reason why so many Hollywood readers went nuts of the Cedar Rapids screenplay because these scenes are the least challenging in the film. These are the scenes that pat you on the back for watching the movie. Anyone who has ever seen a movie knows that Kurtwood Smith’s character is going to turn out to be a hypocrite because when was the last time that you see a movie in which the guy who talked about Jesus didn’t turn out to be a hypocrite? Therefore, it’s kinda hard to buy into Helms’s shock when he discovers that Smith isn’t all that he’s cracked up to be. I mean, I can force myself to buy that the Helms character has never been on a plane before but my God, has he never seen a movie or an episode of Law and Order before either? Seriously, the character isn’t a Mennonite. He’s just from the midwest.
In the lead role, Ed Helms is a lot like the movie. He’s great when he’s just a member of the ensemble but sometimes seems to struggle a bit in the more dramatic scenes. To a large extent, the problem is that the film goes so out of it’s way to present Helms as being some sort of man-child that it’s hard to take him seriously once he suddenly starts to think for himself. As I previously stated, the supporting cast is uniformly strong. Reilly is a drunken, foul-mouthed force of nature while Heche steals every scene that she’s in and, in the end, proves herself to really be the heart and soul of the film.
So, in the end, I guess I would say that Cedar Rapids, as uneven and as frustrating as it occasionally turned out to be, is worth seeing once it comes out on DVD in June.