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The Independent Critic

Ed Helms, Anne Heche, John C. Reilly, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Alia Shawkat, Kurtwood Smith
Miguel Arteta
Phil Johnston
Rated R
86 Mins.
Fox Searchlight
Theatrical Feature; Deleted Scenes; Gag Reel; Mike O'Malley - Urban Clogger; Tweaking in the USA; Wedding Belles - Crashing a Lesbian Wedding; Top Notch Commercial; Theatrical Trailer

 "Cedar Rapids" Review 
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There is a tender and funny ordinariness that lies as the heart of Cedar Rapids, a Fox Searchlight release directed by Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl) starring Ed Helms as small town Wisconsin insurance agent Tim Lippe. Tim is the 40-year-old virgin of Brown Valley, Wisconsin ... except that he's not actually a virgin, as evidenced by his bedding down maternal figure and his former seventh grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver), and he has managed to build himself quite the good, if amazingly sterile, life in the small town where he was born and raised.

Tim's boss Bill (terrific character actor Stephen Root) took Tim under his wing as a young man, representing in Tim's eyes a heroic insurance man and father figure and inspiring Tim to follow his path of destiny. When a very peculiar accident threatens to end their agency's grasp on the coveted Two Diamonds Award, Bill sends Tim to the annual insurance convention in, you guessed it, Cedar Rapids to protect the agency's reputation and bring home that award one more time.

Having just seen Adam Sandler's latest man-child film Just Go With It, it occurs to me that this is precisely the type of film that Adam Sandler is trying to make these days and he just hasn't quite figured out how to do so. Sandler started out making broadly comical films with a good heart and characters you couldn't help but laugh at because they were simply caricatures. As Sandler has gotten older and tried to turn away from his man-child routine, he's had mixed success (some would say NO success) at blending the experiences of a 40-year-old into his widely loved man-child routine.

Cedar Rapids gets it right.

First off, Cedar Rapids doesn't so much laugh AT its characters as it does allow genuinely funny human beings to come fully alive in the course of the film's 86-minute running time. Despite the inherent hilarity that comes with watching this bewildered and awed young man as he experiences his first airplane ride, first time in the big city and, heck, his first time really experiencing life, the laughs don't come at the expense of Tim Lippe but because you can't help but be drawn into his sense of wonder and innocence and the gosh darn wonderful way that he looks at life. There are two perfect examples of how this plays out shortly after Tim arrives at the "resort" hotel in Cedar Rapids, first passing with utter cluelessness a prostitute (a delightful Alia Shawkat) who offers to spend time with him and, finally, arriving at his room and looking up with utter amazement when he realizes he's about to share a room with a real life Afro-American man (Isiah Whitlock Jr.).

Wait until you see his face when Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), whom his boss had warned him to avoid, shows up as his third roommate and, as well, when he finds an unexpected connection with Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), a flirty yet sincere fellow agent who seemingly lives out our own bewildered love of this too innocent to be real kind of guy.

Far less naughty than the similarly themed 40-Year-Old Virgin, Cedar Rapids is ultimately more successful as a comedy because Arteta and screenwriter Phil Johnston don't sell out their characters in search of a few laughs, though they aren't even remotely hesitant to poke fun at aberrant convention behavior, political correctness and, yes, those folks who go wild at supposedly "Christian" conventions. Cedar Rapids, in fact, gets a bit dark in its humor towards film's end as our ordinary hero struggles with selling his soul for the sake of pride and a couple of diamonds. Yet, even when the film starts to turn dark there's an underlying goodness that always leaps forth from Tim and, at his worst, you can't help but root for the naive and good-hearted man.

Ed Helms, who hilariously played the dentist in The Hangover and is yet another of the Jon Stewart alums to hit the big screen, plays Tim with a quiet dignity and naive charm that never feels forced or faked. Helm's performance as Tim is so wonderfully heartfelt that occasionally you'll find yourself laughing at a really dirty joke and thinking "How sweet." Tim is a young man who seems to be desperately searching for an anchor, a sanctuary, a place to call home and by the end of Cedar Rapids it is abundantly clear that he's well on his way to finding it.

Giving her best performance in quite some time, Anne Heche is simply magnificent as Joan, who seemingly has a reputation as the conference floozie but whose connection with Tim is so simple and touching and sweet that you practically want to scream at the screen "Anne, we knew you had it in you." Heche has been lost in a series of awkward dramas and uncomfortable romantic comedies for years, but here she serves up a woman who is silly, sweet, sincere, serious, maternal, loving, sexy and, well, just about everything you could want in a woman. In one scene, in particular, Heche's Joan is sitting on a hotel bed comforting an obviously high Tim who is at the peak of his despair over selling his soul and, quite amazingly, Heche turns this moment into a scene that is simultaneously funny and tender and vulnerable to perfection.

Wow. Simply wow.

Isiah Whitlock Jr. shines as the relative straight man of the bunch, while John C. Reilly goes full-on like he's back in a Will Ferrell movie playing an insurance agent who has no problem taking the Christ out of this Christian insurance convention. While there's an argument that Reilly is getting a little too comfy playing these broadly drawn characters with quirky personalities, he does them well and few characters are able to muster both the sensitivity and hilarity needed to really pull it off.

Cedar Rapids had a successful showing at the recent Sundance Film Festival, and the film should do well for Fox Searchlight on its nationwide indie run that begins in February 2011. At a mere 86 minutes, Arteta keeps the film moving at a nice clip and Johnston's intelligent and layered script has something for practically everyone.

While I do fancy myself a fan of Adam Sandler, it's really a shame that Sandler's Just Go With It is likely to far surpass this superior film at the box-office. With heart, humor and tremendous humanity, Cedar Rapids is the first must see comedy of 2011.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic