Discover a Hero in ‘Cedar Rapids’

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.

RATING 9 / 10