Movie Review: Low-budget 'Cedar Rapids' has a big heart
“Cedar Rapids” Directed by: Miguel Arteta Starring: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Stephen Root, Kurtwood Smith, Alia Shawkat, Rob Corddry, Sigourney Weaver Rated: R
The state of the film industry always has reminded me of “A Tale of Two Cities.” Not so much because of the obvious “best of times, worst of times” angle - there have always been as many crappy movies as good ones being released - but more along the lines of the economic disparity.
There are films made with hundreds of millions of dollars that are heavily advertised and draw millions of viewers. Some are great, some are not and some are somewhere in between. And there are the “little” films, made on miniscule - by Hollywood standards - budgets with less than blanket saturation advertising. There are plenty of bad films in this category, to be sure. There are also plenty of great pieces of work that, while failing to attract a mass audience, manage to gain a loyal following among people who care about film as something more than a method of whiling away a couple of hours when there's “nothing on TV.”
“Cedar Rapids” is one of those small movies that doesn't seem to be drawing huge crowds; there was one other person in the theater when I saw it, and we were together. Despite the fact it features a cast with well known actors – John C. Reilly, Ed Helms, Sigourney Weaver, Anne Heche - and is a well-written, character-driven movie with impeccable art direction and set design, “Cedar Rapids” is not the kind of film that's going to pull in the mass audience of, say, the last “Transformers” movie.
Director Miguel Arteta has mined the small film territory before. In 2000, he directed “Chuck and Buck,” a really good movie that made viewers really uncomfortable.
Sometimes that can be a good thing. He then did a lot of quality TV work (“Freaks and Geeks,” “Six Feet Under,” “Ugly Betty”) before coming back to the big screen in 2009 with “Youth in Revolt.” That, too, is a film that has been much ignored but is worth seeking out on DVD.
“Cedar Rapids” keeps Arteta's quirky (some say twisted) sense of humor but is also a sweet, sometimes melancholy, story that makes the phrase “slice of life” come to mind. The cast is obviously on board with Arteta's vision and all are completely at home in their characters.
Ed Helms is perfectly cast as Tim Lippe, an insurance salesman from a small Wisconsin town. Tim takes the plunge - and takes his first airplane flight - when his boss tells him he's going to the “big city,” Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for a regional insurance conference. Tim's job is to win the coveted Two Diamonds Award for his company.
Outside of the fact that he's having an affair with his former middle school teacher - played with wry sexiness by Sigourney Weaver - Tim's life is fairly tame. To him, Cedar Rapids might as well be Las Vegas.
When he arrives he finds he'll be sharing a hotel room with two other agents. One is a fairly regular guy, Ronald Wilkes (played by Isiah Whitlock Jr.), but the other is an agent named Dean Ziegler. Tim's boss gave him explicit instructions: Stay away from Dean Ziegler. Now he is helpless to do so.
“Deansie”is the most charged character in the film; he's loud, obnoxious, overbearing, drinks to excess and seems to care only about one thing - making himself happy. That said, he's not a totally unsympathetic character and is quite hilarious. The role was made for John C. Reilly, who makes it his own.
Ronald and Deansie are bound and determined to show the less than wise to the ways of the world Tim a good time.
And so is female agent Joan Ostrowski-Fox. Played by a terrific Anne Heche, Joan is a party girl who has a wearied look of melancholy about her. From her first scene, it's evident that her marriage - maybe her entire life at this point - is less than she hoped it would be. It's no surprise when she seduces the “innocent abroad,” Tim, who immediately feels guilty for cheating on his school teacher/concubine.
Other characters include Orin Helgesson, a self-righteous blowhard who heads the insurance association and Bree, a prostitute who propositions Tim in front of his hotel. As he is so innocent, he thinks she's just a friendly gal, like the people he knows back in Wisconsin. Bree turns out to be a very nice person after all.
“Cedar Rapids” is very funny and has some sexual situations (nothing overtly raunchy), but what notches it up is the sweetness factor and the emotional depth of the characters.
Credit must be given to production designer Doug Meerdink. His design is full of perfect touches that will make you think of home décor magazines from the 1970s. It's a perfect touch.