By now there’s a subgenre of patronizing films about questionable careers. Anchorman skewered newscasters; Talladega Nights lovingly ridiculed NASCAR dreams; and now Cedar Rapids takes aim at the biggest fish in the barrel, insurance agents. You know, the guys and gals who begin every sentence with “God forbid …”
For the first 15 minutes, the laughs are as thin as the premise, though. Resisting the temptation to go broad, Ed Helms portrays our hero, Tim Lippe, as less a fool than a naïf. But director Miguel Arteta, who gave us such a disappointing version of the cult novel Youth in Revolt, doesn’t really elicit sympathy for his innocent. Maybe Tim has never left the little town of Brown Valley, or even been on an airplane, but it’s hard to know how we’re supposed to feel, since boyish Tim also has his grade-school teacher Macy Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver) over for occasional rolls in the hay. The film, in an attempt at avoiding snotty humor, goes down a rabbit hole of self-deflation.
It only comes to real life when Anne Heche enters as Joan, a married agent who comes to Cedar Rapids to blow off the stifling morality of middle class family life. Heche plays her not only with swagger and tenderness but also with a convincing hunger. She becomes a kind of totem figure for the morality play that develops halfway into the movie, both reinforcing her role while strengthening the unexpected sweetness she displays at the very end. All the women in this film seem automatically more powerful than their men, including Alia Shawkat’s (also emblematic) role as a sweet doper prostitute whom Tim “befriends.”
Cedar Rapids is not much of a film, but it has a nice resonance. Arteta is lucky to have the cast, including John C. Reilly and Kurtwood Smith as a supposed nanny figure to all the wacky Hangover-like partying that goes on in Cedar Rapids. Arteta himself doesn’t bring much to the script, but that does leave room for some other director to really exploit the sex life of insurance agents on the loose, right? I mean, God forbid.