Reviews

'Cedar Rapids' Presents a Deadpan Evocation of the Midwest

For all of its unhip Midwest signifiers, Cedar Rapids is surprisingly sweet and often amusing, if rarely riotous.


Cedar Rapids

Director: Miguel Arteta
Cast: Ed Helms, Anne Heche, John C. Reilly, Isiah Whitlock, Jr., Stephen Root, Kurtwood Smith, Alia Shawkat
Rated: R
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-02-11
Website
Trailer

Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, the Midwest satirists behind Election and About Schmidt, didn't write or direct Cedar Rapids, but with its deadpan evocation of Wisconsin and Iowa, focus on the insurance industry, and recognizable stars dressing down to play provincial, you'd be forgiven for mistaking it as their work. In fact, Payne and Taylor produced this comedy, directed by Miguel Arteta, who has had his own fun with small-town ennui in movies like The Good Girl and Youth in Revolt.

Even with the usually astute Arteta, Payne, and Taylor on board, Cedar Rapids feels like a potential minefield of condescension -- not to mention derivation. Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) has never left his hometown of Brown Valley, Wisconsin, and when his superstar coworker is unable to make a presentation at the annual insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, he's drafted to attend instead. Marveling at airplanes, hotel rooms, and keynote addresses, Helms amplifies his eager-to-please, uptight gooniness even past his work on TV as Andy Bernard. And so, at first the movie looks like a crowd-pleasing, faux-indie mix of The Office and About Schmidt (also about an insurance salesman), with a bit of The 40-Year-Old Virgin to boot.

Yet for all of its unhip Midwest signifiers -- wood paneling, religious pieties, travelers checks -- Cedar Rapids is surprisingly sweet and often amusing, if rarely riotous. Tim's naiveté is pitched so broadly that it actually goes beyond caricature and becomes specific again: he's too arrested to qualify as a satire of any group. Helms gamely absorbs any digs at wide-eyed yokels, leaving his new convention friends -- playful Joan (Anne Heche), nerdy Ronald (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), and gregarious Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), whom Tim has been told to avoid at all costs -- to come off as smart and savvy.

And so, apart from Tim's singular goofiness and the convention's cartoonishly pious leader Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith), the insurance folk aren't targets for mockery. The actors, working from Phil Johnston's screenplay, make the joshing, cornball conventioneers' patter jovial and charming, turning mind-numbing routines humane. Even Ziegler's encyclopedic euphemisms for vaginas seem harmless, almost weirdly affectionate in their attention to cunnilingus.

This lack of offense is largely due to Reilly's facility with teddy-bear boorishness. Johnston's jokes aren't always razor-sharp as written, but the actors, rather than producing smug exaggerations or distracting with their famous faces, make most of the movie snap. Whitlock nails the cadences of Ronald's ordered seriousness ("Classic Ronald: it's barely even a joke!" Ziegler cries, delighted after Ronald tries his hand at humor) and makes some meta-references to The Wire. And Stephen Root has fun as Tim's boss, a man who manages to be unceasingly vulgar with hardly a curse word.

These characterizations are particularly refreshing in a film that values friendship over romance as a means of removing Tim from his Brown Valley bubble: his bonds with Ronald and Ziegler get just as much attention as his flirtation with Joan. Still, Tim's backstory feels contrived to allow his education: despite his unflagging friendliness, he appears to not have any hometown relationships beyond a single romantic entanglement, more casual than he realizes, with his former teacher (Sigourney Weaver, nicely restrained).

But Arteta doesn't linger on this faint implausibility. Cedar Rapids may be his swiftest movie yet, zipping around the titular Iowa city with the restlessness of a genuine convention attendee. The movie is so fleet and likable, in fact, that it hurries toward a too-easy conclusion, with big speeches, ultimatums, and lessons that put too fine a point on Tim's awakening. For an indie movie, this probably seems hopelessly square. But as it arrives in theaters in the dead of winter, it's also a warm little diversion.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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