Already off to a disastrous start, 2011 sees its junk pile grow higher with an alleged “comedy” by director Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl) that is unlikely to connect with any comic-book reader sporting a 70-point I.Q., but will undoubtedly be a big hit with the kind of people who thrive on Will Ferrell movies. Cedar Rapids is a ribald collection of stale corporate-convention jokes, hateful put-downs of women and filthy one-liners you wouldn’t repeat at parties attended by middle-aged men wearing Chinese lampshades. Never remotely witty, intelligent or original, it demeans even the cheapest Hollywood rom-com clichés. It comes as no surprise that they laughed at Sundance (natch), but I confess I am too old to fall out of my chair shrieking at the sight of John C. Reilly bending over, cacophonously passing gas and setting off an explosion with a cigarette lighter. These are the jokes, and they get worse as the movie drags on for 86 punishing minutes that are about as funny as a hip replacement.
The centerpiece of this fiasco is Tim Lippe, a nerdy, 40ish insurance salesman from Wisconsin, played by Ed Helms, the most boring actor on TV’s The Office. When his kinky boss hangs himself, nude, in a closet, Tim is dispatched to an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (played by the ugliest town in Michigan). Tim is such a cretin he has never traveled beyond the city limits of his hometown, ridden on an airplane, rented a car or consumed anything stronger than cream sherry. His love life amounts to sex once a week with the schoolteacher who taught him when he was 12 years old. (Don’t ask me what Sigourney Weaver is doing in this dreck; she looks younger than everyone else in the movie and could teach them all a few things about acting.) Because of a room shortage, Tim is forced to bunk with an obnoxious, alcoholic motormouth named Dean (John C. Reilly). Noisy and always hung over, Dean talks through sermons, walks in on people while they’re sitting on the john and substitutes grabbing everyone’s genitals for handshakes. Tim also falls under the influence of another agent named Joan (Anne Heche), a married slut who throws him naked into the hotel pool and then ravages him. This is a convention for dweebs, but before it’s over, Tim has slept with Joan, fallen in love with a prostitute, skinny-dipped, snorted coke and smoked pot and sung an insurance song to the tune of “O Holy Night” at the hotel talent show. (This is the kind of convention where the big entertainment event of the weekend is a scavenger hunt to win a coupon for a Japanese restaurant in a shopping mall.) The film builds to Tim’s presentation speech to the president in which he must win the annual “two-diamond award” his firm has been awarded for two years in a row–or lose his job.
The movie is a yo-yo of jarring tempos: The setup is longer than the payoff, the plot is totally inconsequential and the so-called comic acting is desperately overwrought. It’s obvious that Mr. Helms, in his first headlining role in a feature film, is hoping for a big-screen miracle to turn him into an overnight star like his Office co-star, Steve Carell. Unfortunately, he’s clumsy and charmless enough to make you wonder how he got hired in the first place. Mr. Reilly does repulsive better than anyone, but after this movie, a serious gastrointestinal exam is seriously recommended–he eats so much scenery that his medical condition is in jeopardy. (Also, if his character is supposed to be straight, why does he vomit up so much endless dialogue about anal intercourse with other men?) Nothing jells here, including the forced insurance-convention hijinks.
This is doubly disappointing, because Mr. Arteta is a director who has made some of the most imaginative and fascinating indie prods in recent years. This is not one of them. It’s hard to imagine how a director with the distinctive voice he displayed in Star Maps and Chuck and Buck could come up with anything as flat, vulgar and predictable as this. Of course you’re only as good as your material, and neither of those films were written by Cedar Rapids‘ Phil Johnston, who displays little more than a passion for raucous profanity. This crude aping of every hack from Judd Apatow to the Farrelly brothers represents the worst of what is happening in film today, just as a group of insurance salesmen in discount suits symbolizes the worst kind of cornball American convention in your grimmest nightmares.
Running time 86 minutes
Written by Phil Johnston
Directed by Miguel Arteta
Starring Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche