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Cedar Rapids

February 26, 2011
Cedar Rapids

There’s a place in this nation that some people call “flyover country”. To look at the media landscape, culture exists in New York and Los Angeles. There are big doings in Washington, DC and a few other coastal epicenters like Miami, Boston and Seattle are hip too. But other than a couple cosmopolitan outposts like Minneapolis and Chicago, the center of the map is a vast tract of in-between, relegated to blandly kitschy backdrops for the likes of Glee or The Office. Tucked away near the corners of Minnesota, South Dakota, and Iowa, Cedar Rapids may as well be the end of the world.

In The Big Kahuna, Kevin Spacey rants that they hold business conventions in flyover cities — Wichita, in that case — because there’s nothing else there. The location is devoid of personality, which lets the company representatives — temporarily voided of their own — get down to business. But not everyone would share his view. In Cedar Rapids, we find a very different perspective on the matter.

Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) lives in Brown Valley, Wisconsin, where he works for Brown Star Insurance. He’s carved out a pretty insular life, living in the same town he’s spent his entire life in, and even dating a woman he’s known since he was 12. Critically unhip, Tim is exactly the honest, straightforward, unironic Midwestern soul that David Foster Wallace would place up against all of Williamsburg’s hipsters. He likes who he is, and loves what he does. You can’t help but admire him a bit, even as you cringe at some of his missteps.

But when Brown Star’s usual representative dies suddenly, it falls to Tim to go to the ASMI convention in Cedar Rapids and bring home a fourth straight Two Diamonds award. It will be nerve-wracking for someone so green, but if anyone can make a good impression on the Midwest chapter president (Kurtwood Smith), it’s Tim. And so he sets off with his insured travelers checks and self-laminated maps and lists of things to do in the biggest city he’s ever seen.

The most important piece of advice Tim receives is to avoid Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a loud, brash, foulmouthed carouser on the Midwest insurance circuit. So of course his scheduled roommate Ronald Wilkes (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.) pulls Dean in on a money-saving upgrade to a junior suite. After some initial awkwardness, Tim starts to find that Ronald, Dean, and their friend Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche) aren’t really such a bad bunch, and even to pick up a bit of their rhythm himself.

Over the course of the weekend, Tm’s life falls apart as he bounces from cream sherry in the hotel bar to drunken convention sex to a coke-fueled white-trash blowout on the outskirts of the city with a prostitute who hangs around the front of the hotel (Alia Shawkat). It’s a wild ride; ludicrous and preposterous and just funny as all-get-out.

Helms basically expands on his character from The Office, and he’s clearly at home in the role. It may not be the greatest stretch, but it takes a certain skill to play a character like Tim Lippe without smirking at the camera. Reilly is, of course, playing Reilly. But unlike his pairings with actors like Will Ferrell, he never quite becomes too much. It probably has a lot to do with the way that, though they’re unquestionably on his side, Joan and Ronald call him out on his excesses. Yes, he’s a crude blowhard, but they temper him, and he’s never flat-out mean. Who of us doesn’t have a friend somewhere like that?

After years in production hell, Cedar Rapids is finally in limited release, though it deserves much more. Rough though it may be, There hasn’t been a comedy this good in a long time. As Tim would surely say, it’s super-awesome.

Worth it: yes.
Bechdel test: fail.

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