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Cedar Rapids: Another gooey Middle America meltdown

Clockwise from top left: Isiah Whitlock Jr, John C. Reilly, Ed Helms and Anne Heche in a scene from "Cedar Rapids"

2 out of 4 stars


The trouble with embarrassment comedies is we don't all squirm at the same places. Director Miguel Arteta, who cites Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy as a formative influence, is a specialist in divisive discomfiture. His films ( The Good Girl, Chuck & Buck, Youth in Revolt) feature naive characters in awkward, humiliating situations. Critics and other audience members typically either find his work endearing and subversive or condescending and cartoonish.

Cedar Rapids, which recently played at the Sundance Film Festival, is Arteta's most mainstream comedy yet, a cousin to last year's The Hangover, with a lineage that goes back through Judd Apatow (with whom Arteta worked on the television series Freaks and Geeks). This is the reliable raunch-plus-sweetness comic formula that goes back through the Farrelly brothers, Adam Sandler's comedies, Revenge of the Nerds, Porky's and Animal House.

Cedar Rapids? Seems like we've flown over this territory before. Here then are the essential ingredients for a retread gross-out comedy:

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The improbable man child

Ed Helms's character Tim Lippe is a charisma-free, profoundly naive small-town insurance man from Wisconsin. Essentially, he's Steve Carell from The 40-Year-Old Virgin, except that he sleeps with his seventh-grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver). When he's unexpectedly sent to represent his company at a big insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, it's the first time he has flown in a plane or used a credit card in a hotel, and he mistakes the solicitation of a hooker, Bree ( Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat), for friendly chat.

The fish out of water

Once in Cedar Rapids, Tim finds himself in the company of three people who force him to grow up. First, he's shocked to find himself rooming with a black man ( The Wire's Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who turns out to be almost as nerdy as Tim is. Second, there's the randy housewife/agent Joan (Anne Heche), who looks at these conventions as sexual recreation opportunities. Worst of all, there's Dean "Deanzie" Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a vulgarian and boozer who Tim has been specifically warned to avoid, but soon he learns that the ostensibly Christian values of his company are a fraud, and Ziegler is a true rebel.

Pushing the raunch envelope

From the semen in the hair of There's Something About Mary to the chest waxing of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, every comedy needs to push the edge of the audience's discomfort. Here, there's a fascination with all things anal (Tim comes from Brown River and works for Brown Star Insurance, and there's a scene in which Tim is interrupted on the toilet). But most of the most outrageous raunch in Cedar Rapids is verbal, emphasized by Deanzie, gut hanging over his boxer shorts, opining on cunnilingus and body functions.

The importance of getting trashed

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Pivotal to the enlightenment of the hero is an episode of getting epically wasted: lots of booze and even some crystal meth. The event is a low-life party on the outskirts of town where Tim gets messed up, a prelude, naturally, to clearing the cobwebs of propriety from his mind before confronting the hypocrisy in his organization. As in The Hangover, the binge is the route to wisdom and recognizing the importance of good friends.

The easy and the queasy

Cedar Rapids was produced by Alexander Payne and his regular collaborator, Jim Taylor ( Election, About Schmidt), among others, and has many elements that suggest a similar satire of Middle American banality and hypocrisy. But the condescension here seems far too easy and the film's conventional combination of childlike hero and gross-out slapstick is calculated to appeal to the mainstream values it purports to mock. The most uncomfortable part of Arteta's comedy is its smarmy ending, a dash of Frank Capra by way of a Will Ferrell comedy. In other words, custom-made to do boffo biz in places like Cedar Rapids.

Cedar Rapids

  • Directed by Miguel Arteta
  • Written by Phil Johnston
  • Starring Ed Helms, Anne Heche, John C. Reilly and Isiah Whitlock Jr.
  • Classification: 14A
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