Reviews

Discover a Hero in 'Cedar Rapids'

What's at first blush a light-hearted comedy is actually a much more profound tale.


Cedar Rapids

BBFC Certificate: 15
Director: Miguel Arteta
Cast: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Anne Heche, Sigourney Weaver, Kurtwood Smith, Stephen Root
Length: 87 minutes
Year: 2011
Distributor: Fox
MPAA Rating: R
Release date: 2011-06-21
Website

There’s a moment in the first third of Cedar Rapids where the character Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche) turns to protagonist Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) and declares, “Lippe, you are a hero.” It’s a line that comes off as flattering and flirtatious in the script, but it’s actually a profound revelation about the Lippe character; Lippe, as it turns out, is indeed a hero in the classic sense of the term.

An insurance salesman, Lippe may not have the appearance of a prototypical hero, but appearances are deceiving throughout Cedar Rapids and with the film itself: it's a masterfully written and powerfully acted hero epic with satirical overtones in the guise of a highly functioning screwball comedy about a naïve insurance guy.

Cedar Rapids, directed by Miguel Arteta and released on DVD on 21 June (US) and 19 September (UK), establishes Lippe as a meek insurance salesman who has never ventured outside his small hometown in Wisconsin. When an unexpected situation transpires at the insurance agency where he works, Lippe is sent to a regional convention in the city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and is suddenly thrust into a world he has never known.

This situation launches Lippe’s heroic quest. From Odysseus to Dorothy Gale to Luke Skywalker to Harry Potter, the hero tale follows certain patterns: the hero is typically an orphan or of mysterious birth; the hero must go on a journey where his or her beliefs and character are tested; the hero is aided by true friends or hampered by powerful enemies; and the hero emerges from the quest with a better sense of self and a better understanding of the world.

All of this applies to Cedar Rapids’ protagonist Tim Lippe, but rather than being set in ancient Greece, the Land of Oz, in outer space or on the Quidditch pitch, Lippe’s tale unfolds in the unassuming landscape of the American Midwest and in the unglamorous field of insurance. By stripping away the metaphors, Cedar Rapids writer Phil Johnston has created a brilliant hero epic for grownups.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of laughs along the way. Helms -- whether as Andy Bernard on NBC’s The Office or as Stu in The Hangover -- is a master at playing innocence scandalized; thus Helms’ role as the innocent abroad in Cedar Rapids comes across with utmost sincerity. That credibility provides fertile ground for hilarity in Lippe’s first encounters with air travel, hotels, team-building exercises and far less innocuous situations.

Upping the laughter ante is Lippe’s coarse-talking, hard-drinking roommate at the convention, Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly). Standing in sharp contrast to Ziegler’s crudeness is Lippe’s other roommate, the kindhearted Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr. of TV’s The Wire, which plays into the script). Ziegler and Wilkes are seasoned conventioneers, as is Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Heche); each has his or her own idea of how one behaves at a convention, and as they and Lippe struggle to find common ground, the group’s witty dialogue provides laughter as well as insight into each character’s motivations.

Nearly all of them are motivated to impress the insurance association head, Orin Helgesson, played by Kurtwood Smith (TV’s That 70s Show). A chance encounter between Helgesson and Lippe in the men’s locker room provides a cringe-inducingly awkward comic moment.

Cedar Rapids doesn’t waste time lampooning the Midwest. Certainly there are some playful jabs at the Midwest (Helgesson invites Lippe to “have a seat on the davenport” -- a dated Midwestern term for sofa), but these little pokes come from a place of familiarity, if not love. Plus, the strength of placing the action in the city of Cedar Rapids versus, say, New York, is that even audiences who have never been to New York understand its cinematic codes. By sending Lippe to a city in Iowa, the film avoids becoming Elf or Crocodile Dundee since the majority of viewers will be as unfamiliar with Cedar Rapids as Lippe is, generating solidarity with him.

Cedar Rapids also avoids skewering those who work in insurance. There are even moments where Lippe describes insurance as a noble calling; at one point, he recounts his motivation to get into the business. “I think insurance agents get a bum rap,” Lippe says. “A lot of them work really hard to get people’s lives back on track.”

Instead, writer Johnston and director Arteta save their satirical barbs for larger themes, particularly hypocrisy and judgemental behavior. Throughout the film, that which appears wholesome and trustworthy may not necessarily be so; similarly, that which seems rough and crude may in fact be worthwhile. In addition, several characters in the film play up outward appearances of purity, only to have their true selves revealed.

Johnston and Arteta also strike at the human tendency to apply religion to any cause in attempt to make it appear nobler. For example, when the conference general session begins with a prayer led by Helgesson. Lippe is impressed, but Ziegler quickly disabuses him of the gloss. “Selling insurance is a business,” Ziegler insists. “It’s not a boy scout troop.”

It’s one in a series of epiphanies along Lippe’s rite of passage that help him see that the world -- and the people in it -- are far more complex than he imagined. Reilly’s excellent performance as the intricate Ziegler character stands as a prime example.

While Cedar Rapids enjoyed modest success at the box office, it may find its niche among home viewers, joining such films as Robbie Fox’s So I Married an Axe Murderer or Mike Judge’s Office Space which enjoy huge cult followings on video despite unremarkable box-office totals.

Cedar Rapids is an excellent film, an uplifting comedy and an accessible hero epic that deserves repeat viewings. Six DVD extras, including deleted scenes and a gag reel, complete the package. The film is rated R for language, sex and drug use.

9


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

Zadie Smith's 'Intimations' Essays Pandemic With Erudite Wit and Compassion

Zadie Smith's Intimations is an essay collection of gleaming, wry, and crisp prose that wears its erudition lightly but takes flight on both everyday and lofty matters.

Music

Phil Elverum Sings His Memoir on 'Microphones in 2020'

On his first studio album under the Microphones moniker since 2003, Phil Elverum shows he has been recording the same song since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s. Microphones in 2020 might be his apex as a songwriter.

Music

Washed Out's 'Purple Noon' Supplies Reassurance and Comfort

Washed Out's Purple Noon makes an argument against cynicism simply by existing and sounding as good as it does.

Music

'Eight Gates' Is Jason Molina's Stark, Haunting, Posthumous Artistic Statement

The ten songs on Eight Gates from the late Jason Molina are fascinating, despite – or perhaps because of – their raw, unfinished feel.

Film

Apocalypse '45 Uses Gloriously Restored Footage to Reveal the Ugliest Side of Our Nature

Erik Nelson's gorgeously restored Pacific War color footage in Apocalypse '45 makes a dramatic backdrop for his revealing interviews with veterans who survived the brutality of "a war without mercy".

Music

12 Brilliant Recent Jazz Albums That Shouldn't Be Missed

There is so much wonderful creative music these days that even an apartment-bound critic misses too much of it. Here is jazz from the last 18 months that shouldn't be missed.

Music

Blues Legend Bobby Rush Reinvigorates the Classic "Dust My Broom" (premiere)

Still going strong at 86, blues legend Bobby Rush presents "Dust My Broom" from an upcoming salute to Mississippi blues history, Rawer Than Raw, rendered in his inimitable style.

Music

Folk Rock's the Brevet Give a Glimmer of Hope With "Blue Coast" (premiere)

Dreamy bits of sunshine find their way through the clouds of dreams dashed and lives on the brink of despair on "Blue Coast" from soulful rockers the Brevet.

Music

Michael McArthur's "How to Fall in Love" Isn't a Roadmap (premiere)

In tune with classic 1970s folk, Michael McArthur weaves a spellbinding tale of personal growth and hope for the future with "How to Fall in Love".

Film

Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.

Music

The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.

Music

Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.

Music

Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.

Music

Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.

Film

The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.

Music

Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.

Music

Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.

Music

Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.