directed by Miguel Arteta
written by Phil Johnston
starring Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Sigourney Weaver, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Stephen Root, Kurtwood Smith, Rob Corddrry, Mike O’Malley
Very recently it appears that certain films have deliriously stolen something from the Charlie Sheen guidebook to Winning. Along with the otherwise predictable and generic comedy “Take Me Home Tonight”, this film openly and brazenly celebrates the great pleasures to be had ingesting narcotics with absolutely no negative ramifications. It “Take Me” a major character finds a bag of cocaine and proceeds to do lines and share his booty for the duration of the film. He’s fully charged, energetic and dynamic. He becomes a Sheen hero and gets away with his dalliance unscathed. He becomes a much better version of himself and does not stumble into a state of ham-fisted apology for his actions. In the superlative Cedar Rapids the central character Tim Lippe played exquisitely by Ed Helms hooks up with a young prostitute and proceeds to smoke crack with abandon. At a party crack pipes are everywhere and most importantly everyone is having a really, really good time. Tim experiences the rush, the high, and the momentary bliss of his high and also escapes the stereotypical crash that plagues almost every other cocaine/crack user in cinema. One can only hope this is a sign of what’s to come. Hey, smoking is back in vogue. Why not hard drug use?
Tim is a seemingly content insurance agent. He prides himself on serving his small community and is on a first name basis with all his customers. This man really adds value to the experiences of insurance seekers and this makes him feel sort of proud. However, he has never really stretched himself or moved beyond his safety zone until he is faced with a new assignment he cannot avoid. He is forced to travel from his home state of Wisconsin to Cedar Rapids, Iowa for a conference with the specific goal of securing for his agency the coveted two diamonds award which they have won two years running. His opportunity arises out of the chaos of his boss’s death due to a lovely adventure into the unsurpassed joys of autoerotic asphyxiation. Tim refuses to belief it was anything more than an accident but everyone else knows better. So Tim heads off to the conference idealistic, naive, and nervous.
The film exploits the anxiety of one who must subject himself to a new situation while bearing a tremendous amount of pressure to succeed. It clearly weighs on him and with his posture and gestures Helms establishes his difficulties early on. Tim is not used to anything so grand as the conference and his trepidation shows consistently. He is warned against a man named Dean Ziegler (Reilly) before he leaves and naturally is forced to bunk with the man. Ziegler is clearly the archetypical Sheen character with his penchant for loudness, the willingness to party at every turn, and his raging libido. But there is also a sadness about the man which we learn as he stares heartbroken at a picture of him and his wife who left him after seventeen years. This explains Ziegler’s compensatory behavior as it might explain Sheen’s. The point is he doesn’t dwell on his sorrows but embodies the persistently amusing and wonderfully off-color host for Tim who appears to be the type who has never uttered an expletive in his life.
Great friendships are forged in this film between Tim, Ziegler, Ronald Wilkes (Whitlock) and a firebrand sexpot named Joan (Heche) who although married has managed to secure a fling at every convention she has attended. “What happens in Cedar Rapids stays in Cedar Rapids” she says at one point after she and Tim get to know each other a bit better. Ron as played stoically and so solid by Whitlock is a rock of a man who is just so consumed with integrity it almost doesn’t seem possible. He’s not married and reticent about having too good of a time so he mostly stays out of Ziegler lunatic world. However, he gives us a fantastic gangster pose late in the film which he learned from (his words) the HBO series “the Wire”. He even does an impersonation of the character Omar which is of course hilarious.
The film is consistently funny throughout but laugh-out loud hilarious for the final reel. These are organically created characters and each of them is fully fleshed out so we get inside their heads a bit. They are all sort of broken in a way. In the beginning of the film Tim is sleeping with his former gradeschool teacher Macy Vanderhei (Weaver) with whom he is still very much a student. Indeed it is a bit creepy how much of a mother figure she is to him and although she only wants sex he wants so much more. She’s good when she can control their meetings but as soon as she learns from Tim that he slept with Joan she cuts him off but not before telling him she’s slept with plenty of other men since they hooked up. Such a cruel, heartless bitch.
Tim is transformed over the course of the film but the change in him is subtle. There are no dramatic moments of intuition only a good man with a reliable and dedicated clientele who ultimately back him when he needs them the most. This is a small-town values film and we know from experience that the connectedness carries with it the potential for utter chaos and tragedy. Due to the family-like nature of such communities a horrible event by its very nature becomes divisive as seen in Cleveland, Texas recently after a young hispanic girl was allegedly raped by eighteen black men. But here there is only the trust and decency often extolled in such towns and Tim is definitely a part of that. However, he is also pushed into a situation that horrifies him as his basic core values are stream rolled in an act of desperation that carries on a tradition started by his boss with the gleeful participation of the high priest of the convention, a man named Owin Helgesson (Smith) whose blatherings about God and Country are proved mere hyperbole due to his basic dishonest and criminal temperament. He’s a sanctimonious little turd disguised as a moral crusader. The absolute worst kind. Yet Tim believes he has no choice other than to willingly venture into the man’s trap.
Overall, these are lovable characters as established by a brilliant cast of comedic actors including the great Anne Heche who is just so damn cute with her red hair. One can spend hours contemplating the beauty of it. Smallish parts by Alia Shawkat who plays the aformentioned prostitute with the requisite heart of gold and the totemic Stephen Root who plays the owner of the Insurance chain are well developed and delivered impeccably by these two fine and underutilized actors. Also Rob Corddry has a thrilling turn as a tool who tries to obliterate Tim at the party after the latter insults his pride. Ultimately these are people we may not want to hang out with but they are great characters worthy of study. We pull for Tim because he obviously needs a Win in the ultimate Charlie Sheen style. It’s really important afterall.