Cedar Rapids: Arteta’s Endearing Comedy, Starring Ed Helmes

Miguel Arteta’s comedy, “Cedar Rapids” is one of his most amiable films, a well-acted work that continues to display his unique sensibility and recurrent themes, even though Arteta did not write the script.

Fresh from Sundance Film Fest, where it received its world premiere last month, “Cdera Rapids,” which is released by Fox Searchlight, should become Arteta’s most commercially popular film.

Over the past decade or so, Arteta has been making male-driven features that could be described as “comedies of embarrassment” or “comedies of humiliation,” but at the same time films that are enjoyable, boasting largely endearing characters, and a sense of humor that is at once subversive and upbeat.

Arteta likes his flawed characters too much for him to just humiliate and put them down in a nasty way.  Despite the public embarrassment that they display, his comedies always remain hearty and heartfelt.

In “Cedar Rapid,” the protagonist is insurance agent Tim Lippe (Ed Helms in a great performance), a grossly naïve man (actually still a boy), who has never stayed at a hotel before.

A fish out of water par excellence, Lippe has never experienced anything like Cedar Rapids, in Iowa. Sent to represent his company at the annual insurance convention, he is soon distracted by three men who seem to be more sophisticated and mature than he is.  The trio, played by John C. Reilly, Anne Heche and Isiah Whitlock, Jr., are all convention vets, who promise to indoctrinate him, showing the necessary ropes while pushing his boundaries—and testing his mettle. “Welcome to the jungle, Timbo,” Dean “Deanzie” Ziegler says, and he means it.

Up until now, Lippe has been the kind of conformist, fearful guy, who plays—and does–everything by the book, even the book is often strange or rigid. As expected, the convention becomes truly non-conventional and even unconventional.

Like most of Arteta’s characters, Lippe is not really young in age, but he is still open to changes, or rather changes and transformations of various kinds are thrust upon him. After spending 34 years in tiny Brown Valley, Wisconsin, Lippe is let loose into the freewheeling, hothouse atmosphere of the annual Cedar Rapids insurance convention.

Soon, Lippe’s unassuming naiveté leads him into one complicated situation after the next, one embarrassing event after another.  These events result in unlikely friendships as he faces all the things he has feared before–sex, lies and temptation—including the unexpected chance to become the stand-up man he’s always wanted to be.

The narrative, which is always good-natured and often outrageously funny, unfolds over one tumultuous, life-altering weekend in a Midwestern town, which is both typical and atypical of other American towns.

I was not surprised to read in the notes that Fox Phil Johnston’s often hilarious scenario, was supervised by Jim Burke, Alexander Payne, and Jim Taylor, who function as exec producers.  While “Cedar Rapids” is not as sharply observed or poignant as Alexander Payne’s movies (“Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways”) it still exhibits some of the elements of his social satires, co-written with partner Jim Taylor.

You will also recognize in “Cedar Rapids” elements of the classic Frank Capra small-town comedies during the Depression, such as “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” starring Gary Cooper.  In this respect, Arteta’s film represents a disarming new spin on Hollywood’s long-cherished genre of the heartland comedy.