Ed Helms’ leading-man debut is a funnier movie than The Hangover Part 2. It’s smarter, too.
Dying is easy and comedy is hard, as the famous adage goes, and by extension of that same logic it’s virtually impossible to get dark comedy right. The wreckage of failed attempts includes the best and the brightest artists of every comedy era, and not a few dramatic creators as well. Dark comedy – black comedy, gallows humor, cringe humor – carries its own additional pitfalls besides the usual minefield of problems awaiting its gentler cousin. And when dark comedy fails, too often the results land with a resounding thud, victims of creative overreach or slipshod understandings of tone.
Cedar Rapids, the often pitch-dark new effort from indie mainstay Miguel Arteta, walks its dark comedy tightrope constantly in danger of falling one way or the other. Though ultimately it succeeds, the suspense of waiting for it to collapse under its own ambitious weight suffuses virtually every scene. You almost come to care about the movie itself as much as its conventional story or oddball characters, wondering when at any second its whole artifice will come crashing down. It never does, thanks largely to its cast.
Small-town man-child Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is sent by his boss (Stephen Root) at Brownstar Insurance to a regional convention after the agency’s alpha dog (Tom Lennon) dies of auto-erotic asphyxiation. Lippe isn’t ready for the responsibility, let alone the pressure of bringing home the convention’s “Two Diamond” award that the agency has secured several years in a row. But he goes anyway, propelled by his boss’ bullying. His wide-eyed, gawky enthusiasm, mixed with rustic suspicion for the dangers and promises of the titular “big city,” provide some of the film’s most unguarded moments.
The convention’s hotel (as uniformly cheerless, and cheerlessly uniform, as any of a million such places in America) and the people Lippe encounters there of course compel him to grow up emotionally and sexually. In particular, he finds himself drawn into the orbit of hard-partying, foul-mouthed policy “poacher” Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), comparatively straight-laced Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) and the sultry, melancholy Joan (Anne Heche.) The quartet goof their way through the three-day conference while Tim readies his presentation to convention patriarch Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith). Moral fortitude and honesty count for a lot in winning the “prestigious” Two Diamond trophy, and in assenting to his new friends’ temptations – including a fling with Joan – Lippe risks costing his company the award.
Artete works well within the small confines of the hotel, showing the confines of each blandly friendly space and how, especially given the inhospitable winter outside, even such slim diversions as hotel bar margaritas and overheated pools can offer a welcome distraction. It helps a lot that Phil Johnston’s script does right by its main character, shrewdly demonstrating Lippe’s fish out of water ups and downs: his new friends are a welcoming, non-judgmental bunch, a distant cry from the McJesus snobbery of his home town co-workers and neighbors – the same people, Lippe is decent enough to remember, that depend on him. Of course everything works out in the end, but not before plenty of debauchery and clean, if slightly mean-spirited, fun.
As a comic leading man, Helms’ strengths center on the same aw, shucks likability that’s served him more or less unwaveringly since his tenure on The Daily Show. Lippe is similar to The Office‘s Andy Bernard, more naive but less obtuse, with a greater vulnerability as a result. It’s tempting to thumbnail Lippe as Bernard freed of The Office‘s self-conscious repetition of character and story beats, but there’s more – a little more – to him than that. Helms makes him sympathetic but stops short of making him pitiable or charismatic.
He’s backed by, well, a dream supporting cast for this type of project. Reilly is a leading man trapped in the body of a character actor, and every one of his scenes tends to upset the tenuous balance Artete strikes between Lippe and his surroundings. In fact for much of the film’s first hour, the energy level rises palpably whenever Reilly’s motor- and foul-mouthed party animal comes onscreen. Comedies often rise or fall on the quotability of their dialogue; Reilly has most of the lines you’ll want to repeat to your friends.
The surprise performance, however, belongs to Heche as the otherwise content soccer mom who uses insurance conventions as a vacation from the staid security of her normal life. Heche is sexy, sad, and smart all at the same time, without resorting to vamping or overheated line readings to achieve said results. Her confession to Lippe about the normalcy of her life and the release of Cedar Rapids carries some of the film’s best writing, and her well-modulated delivery of the scene works as an oasis to the dark shenanigans displayed almost everywhere else. Heche’s career was swallowed years ago by the media’s provincial fascination with her sexuality; this performance earns her a shot at a larger comeback vehicle.
Making the most of smaller roles, Whitlock makes a charming straight man for the others, especially in a late scene in which he gets to spoof his role on The Wire. The prolific Root is hilarious as Lippe’s boss, and Smith brings the same imperial menace to Helgesson that he brought to all those years as That 70s Show‘s Red Foreman. Arrested Development fans may find themselves a little shocked to see Alia Shawkat, Maeby Funke herself, playing the hotel’s prostitute; the role allows her to say filthy things and look sultry, which for a career transition vehicle is possibly as good as it gets right now.
Cedar Rapids shouldn’t be confused for a great film, but it achieves its difficult ambitions while remaining entertaining, and it has the rare gift of growing in your memory after you leave the theatre. If its raunchy gags and sometimes awkward staging keep it from really developing into something approaching a classic modern dark comedy – Rushmore, to make a contemporary example, or Ruthless People - it’s trying for something riskier than the pot and potty humor that dominates too many modern “comedies” (Not least of which, obviously, The Hangover Part II.) It’s also, admittedly, refreshing to encounter a comedy that doesn’t bear Judd Apatow’s factory-pressed mixture of bittersweet nostalgia and stunted male growth.
Dying is easy, dark comedy is hardest, and ultimately Cedar Rapids is a damned funny movie with a cast full of people who should appear more than they do. Given a small release in the theatres last winter, it’s unmissable home video entertainment.
- Michael Kabel