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Cedar Rapids

[Rating: 3.5/5]

There’s a scene in the middle of the indie comedy “Cedar Rapids” that I think captures exactly what this film does so well.   Ed Helms is a naive, straight-arrow insurance salesman from a small-town in Iowa, and he is attending his first big insurance conference in Cedar Rapids.  He nervously befriends John C. Reilly and Anne Heche, who can’t help but take advantage of his naivete and innocence, though mostly in a good-natured way.  It’s Talent Show night at the insurance convention, and Heche signs Helms up to sing a song, unbeknownst to him, until suddenly the spotlight is on him and everyone’s chanting his name.  There’s no getting out of it, so he makes his way forward to the shabby motel stage.

Now, just about every comedy coming out these days would play this scene the same way:  Helms would try to sing something (probably something awful and from the ’80s) and would be completely terrible, but Helms would think he was doing awesome, and ramp it up more nad more, and it would go on and on, and get worse and worse.  Everybody would cringe, and we would laugh at how awkward an d embarassing the whole thing is.  I feel like I’ve seen this scene, or some variation on it, played out a hundred times the last few years.

But wait – that’s now how “Cedar Rapids” plays it.  Sure, Ed Helms sings a terrible and funny song– it’s a version of “O Holy Night” but with insurance-themed lyrics.  But he sings it heart and soul, and well, he pretty much nails it.  The audience explodes with applause, charmed and surprised.   And we, the “real” audience feel the same way.  The scene is funny, for sure, but it’s not lazy, and the laughs feel earned, and the characters likable, and everything has a warm glow about it.  And that’s a good thing, verging on great.

There’s so much about “Cedar Rapids” that feels like a pleasant surprise. Helms essentially plays the same character as in the “Hangover” movies; a straightlaced guy who inexplicably finds himself in wacky, bizarre, and increasingly raunchy situations.  But in “Cedar Rapids,” he really plays it, as opposed to just occupying the physical space as he does in “The Hangover.”   He’s especially good in the first act, before things get all crazy, consistently underplaying scenes where his character takes his first plane ride, befriends a hooker, and suspects the motel clerk of trying to steal his credit card information.  The fact that he resembles a real person makes the scenes funnier, certainly less quotable and possibly less memorable.

And then he meets John C. Reilly, a foul-mouthed blowhard with a secret heart of gold. It’s hard to say he underplays any of his scenes, as everything out of his mouth is foul and he spends a good portion of the movie with a garbage can lid on his head.  But somehow, Reilly makes his character seem somewhat real, instead of the cartoon character he easily could’ve been.  Watching “Cedar Rapids,” I was reminded of how much I liked Reilly before he met Will Ferrell.   If you’ve never seen him in movies like “Hard Eight” and “Criminal,”  you really ought to.   He hasn’t always played obnoxious man-children, and he really is a pretty good actor.

The performances in “Cedar Rapids” are great, and the movie has something to say (rather politely)about hypocrisy and the appearance of evil. Helms really is as straight as they come, and gives a great little speech about the heroism of insurance agents in times of disaster.  But he discovers at the conference that his heroes — church-going family men, all of them– are engaged in low-level corruption and general dishonesty, not to mention discreet philandering and sleeping with prostitutes.  They aren’t the men he thought them to be, and it’s a shattering realization.  Meanwhile Reilly, who, in his own words, “talks too much, drinks too much, weighs to much, and pisses off everyone around him” turns out to be a reliable friend who keeps his secrets and rescues him from one dangerous situation after another.

I enjoyed “Cedar Rapids,” and this comes a week after watching “The Hangover Part II” made me wonder if movie comedies just weren’t my bag. This film reminds me that this is the kind of comedy I like — one that earns its laughs by investing in its characters.

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