Cedar Rapids (2011)

Directed by Miguel Arteta

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An insurance convention takes place in Cedar Rapids, the second most populated state in Iowa, and for the people flying into town, it might as well be Las Vegas.  As one woman says, “what I do in Cedar Rapids, it stays here.”

The movie frames the setting in such a way that we know it’s inherently a joke.  Cedar Rapids, with all due respect, is an ordinary city with ordinary motels and ordinary people.  We’re made to see the world through the eyes of Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), a doe-eyed insurance agent from small-town Wisconsin who has never before been on a plane.  He is awestruck, almost paralyzed with excitement, and Miguel Arteta’s movie impressively shows this in such a way as to be funny and heartwarming at the same time.

Tim Lippe is the type of character born onstage at an improv show.  He’s almost unbearably naive, childlike and wholesome.  He is Kenneth from 30 Rock without the implied immortality, and he is Ned Flanders come to life.  Pretty quickly we recognize all the flaws in Tim’s life, the way he perceives the world and participates in it as well as his strengths.  He is a loyal insurance agent, one who, as Joan ‘O’Fox’ (Anne Heche) later observes, makes the job of insurance agent sound like Superman.

Tim is sent to Cedar Rapids, the second choice of Brown Star Insurance boss Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root).  The first choice is Roger Lemke (Thomas Lennon), the agency’s Humphrey Bogart who has won the coveted Two Diamond award three years running.  When Lemke is suddenly found dead from auto-erotic asphyxiation, Krogstad sends Tim to the convention to win the Two Diamond award as well as to uphold the saintly image of the small town agency which has been jeopardized by the spotlight thrown on Lemke’s sexual behavior.

Tim seems the model insurance agent for such an undertaking.  His naivete would seem to come in handy, and Krogstad knows he can trust him to obey his orders and to work his ass off to win the award.  When Tim arrives in Cedar Rapids, however, he meets Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a rowdy insurance agent from whom Tim was ordered to keep his distance.

They have the familiar odd couple dynamic at first.  Ziegler, along with Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and potential love interest Joan, try to usher Tim out of his shell.  Each of the characters recognizes how deeply sheltered Tim is, but by the film’s midpoint they’ve successfully made him perform drunken karaoke, make a fool of himself in front of convention boss Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith), and Joan has, by Tim’s later account, seduced him.

Because of such living large, Tim wakes up one morning to find that the woman he believed to be his steady girlfriend (his former middle school teacher, played by Sigourney Weaver) has broken up with him, Joan is married and thus unavailable and he has alienated Orin, thus jeopardizing the Two Diamond award and, he believes, his agency’s success going forward.

To make up for it, the constantly panicked Tim stoops to the same lows he learns Lemke stooped to.  When Joan tells him that Lemke only won those awards because he paid off Orin, Tim decides to do the same.  At his personal low point, Tim meanders around the city before running into a prostitute named Bree (Alia Shawkat).  With her he finds himself smoking crack at a house party in the forrest, really living it up the Cedar Rapids way.

Worried about him, Tim’s three friends (Joan, Ronald, Dean) track him down and pull him out of what becomes a dangerous environment.  In one of the funnier moments of the film, Ronald gets them out of trouble by doing his best Omar from The Wire impression before they speed away in his rented minivan.

In the end Tim confesses to the community that he paid off Orin.  Krogstad, who had hoped to sell the agency once the award was won, is livid.  In anticipation of this, Tim (with the help of his new friends) tracked down all of his clients and received written promises from them to follow him into a new endeavor.  All is well in the world.

Cedar Rapids is a heartwarming comedy that handles its characters with care.  Defined at first by joke-like qualities, the script and direction gives each person depth.  Tim, as the naive midwesterner, could be a one-note joke, but the story acknowledges his strengths in addition to his flawed naivete, something it’s hard to believe lasted so long into his life.

By the end of the film, despite all that has happened, Tim and company remain who they more or less were at the start, showing that despite all the intense depravity, Tim maintains who he once was, a determined insurance agent who wants to do for his clients what one brave insurance agent did for him and his mom when his dad was killed.

It’s a sweet movie, as much as I resist using that word.  Cedar Rapids is never profound, but it is genuinely moving even as it delivers consistent laughs, like a good improv sketch in which the characters transcend the immediate joke.  By the end of the film, Tim’s naivete becomes something more like stubborn optimism.  We need people like that too.

Up Next: The Informant! (2009), Life Itself (2014), The Limey (1999)

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