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

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.





How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?


The 50 Best Songs of 2007

Journey back 13 years to a stellar year for Rihanna, M.I.A., Arcade Fire, and Kanye West. From hip-hop to indie rock and everywhere in between, PopMatters picks the best 50 songs of 2007.


'Modern' Is the Pinnacle of Post-Comeback Buzzcocks' Records

Presented as part of the new Buzzcocks' box-set, Sell You Everything, Modern showed a band that wasn't interested in just repeating itself or playing to nostalgia.


​Nearly 50 and Nearly Unplugged: 'ChangesNowBowie' Is a Glimpse Into a Brilliant Mind

Nine tracks, recorded by the BBC in 1996 show David Bowie in a relaxed and playful mood. ChangesNowBowie is a glimpse into a brilliant mind.


Reaching for the Sky: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Bruce Sudano

How did Bruce Sudano become a superhero? PopMatters has the answer as Sudano celebrates the release of Spirals and reflects on his career from Brooklyn Dreams to Broadway.


Inventions Conjure Mystery and Hope with the Intensely Creative 'Continuous Portrait'

Instrumental duo Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) release their first album in five years as Inventions. Continuous Portrait is both sonically thrilling and oddly soothing.


Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.


Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.


Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.


Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

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