Movie Review: Cedar Rapids

By Matthew Huntley

February 24, 2011

Pictured: 40% of the actual population of Cedar Rapids

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Most comedies these days try to be broad and sensational, abiding by the notion that if something is more outrageous and implausible then it must also be funnier. That’s not necessarily the case, and Cedar Rapids is proof of that. Here is a comedy that gets back to the basics by simply being about people in funny, awkward situations — the kind any of us could find ourselves in. Watching it reminded me of those moments in life that are sort of funny when they happen but which gradually build up over time, as does our fondness for them. These are the types of moments the characters in Cedar Rapids experience.

The story follows a character we’re not used to seeing in the movies (or real life, for that matter): an honest and hard-working insurance agent. His name is Tim Lippe and he’s cheerfully played by Ed Helms (the guy who ripped his own teeth out in The Hangover). Helms’ performance is not only sweet, it’s genuine. He makes Tim into such an enormously likable character we wish only good things happen to him. Unfortunately for Tim, the movie’s plot disagrees.

Tim works for a small insurance company in Brown Valley, Wisconsin and admittedly likes and cares about what he does and who he serves. While it would have been very easy for the movie to make Tim a mere target to lampoon, it chooses to like him first and make fun of him later. Even Macy (Sigourney Weaver), his old high school teacher he occasionally sleeps with, sees how thoughtful and honest he is, even though Tim’s personality invites harsh criticism.

When his company’s hot shot agent dies as a result of suggestively immoral sexual behavior, Tim is picked by his boss (Stephen Root) to attend the annual insurance convention in Cedar Rapids. He’s tasked with making sure their company earns back its wholesome image by winning the coveted Two Diamond Award.


Of course, Tim, being as innocent as he is, has never set foot outside his home town and one of the movie’s pleasures is watching him marvel at simple things like his rental car or the indoor pool at his hotel. He’s so pure and naïve it doesn’t fully register with him he’s making small talk with a prostitute (Alia Shawkat). He also can’t believe he’s sharing a room with Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a black man! The other convention regulars include Dean (John C. Reilly, very funny) and Joan (Anne Heche), each of whom sees the convention as a mini-vacation and does their best to loosen Tim up.

It should come as no surprise that Tim’s would-be simple weekend turns into a life-changing event, but everything that happens is kept within a reasonable reality and not only do we laugh at the characters’ behavior, we also enjoy their conversations, their developing friendships and their spirits. The best scene finds Tim singing a take on “O Holy Night” with lyrics about the insurance business. At the end of it, even I felt like clapping.

There’s also a tender moment Tim shares with Joan when he explains why he became an insurance agent. Helms and Heche are both unaffected here and their exchange is surprisingly earnest.

I mentioned the movie gets back to the basics. It does this by putting its characters in universally awkward, yet believable, positions. These include when the signs for either a hug or a handshake are not exactly clear; or sticking to official protocol with the people you know (as when Tim has to go through the security check at his town’s local airport and he’s friends with the security guard); or walking in on someone in the bathroom; or talking to someone when you’re both naked in a locker room; or being the outcast at a party. A lot of comedies automatically think such moments have to be crude, cynical or even violent, but Cedar Rapids plays them straight and doesn’t press its luck by going over-the-top or hanging on them too long.

Cedar Rapids was directed by Miguel Arteta and written by Phil Johnston. They’ve created a fun, brisk little comedy that, like the characters and their crazy weekend, we can imagine ourselves laughing and smiling about more the more we look back on it. Most comedies these days simply come and go. It’s a rare treat to find one with the potential to be longer-lasting. Cedar Rapids is one of them.



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