June 29, 2011

Cedar Rapids

June 30, 2011

I probably liked this movie so much because I lived in Iowa for four years. I thought it was a little gem.

Ed Lippe (Ed Helms), the main character, an idealistic and naive insurance salesman in small-town Wisconsin, goes to the big city, Cedar Rapids, for a regional conference in hopes of securing for the third year in a row the Three Diamonds Award for his company. The man who was originally supposed to attend the convention died suddenly in an auto-erotic asphyxiation accident!

Although his boss has warned him to stay away from one particular attendee, Dean Zeigler (John C. Reilly), Ed naturally ends up rooming with “Deansie” and Ronald Wilkes (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.), an African-American man whose skin color initially shocks the sheltered Ed. The three men also hook up with a female insurance agent (Anne Heche).

The plot is predictable. Overgrown adolescent Ed loses his ideals and learns that the convention and the award are shallow, hypocritical, and downright corrupt. He becomes a man.

I’ve seen this story lots of times before. Why does this version work so well?

First of all, the entire cast seems to be having fun, especially Anne Heche, who, whenever she's on TV or in the movies, acts like she wants to be somewhere else. Ed Helms is the perfect straight man-child. Even after his illusions about the award he covets are shattered, he manages to extricate himself in a way that reinforces his essential goodness and innocence.

However, the real star here is Deansie—the right actor in the right place at the right time with the right lines to say. Dean is also a familiar type, the anarchist who just happens to be the most honest man around. He’s a loud, foul-mouthed, fat, divorced, alcoholic wastrel who burps and farts his way through the movie. Yet he’s more upright and moral than Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith), the “respectable” prime mover behind the convention who’s not above taking bribes.

Ed believes that, in the past, Dean has poached clients from his boss. But when Dean, who easily confesses to drinking, smoking, and eating too much and to pinching too many women’s behinds, swears he would never steal a client, Ed takes him at his word. Why? Because he’s already admitted to his failings. He has no reason to lie. His fundamental decency fits not only the person we’ve come to know but also the situation he’s in.

Finding the best mix of good and bad in a character is devilishly hard to do. Think about Sue Sylvester on Glee. A fun character portrayed by a wonderful actress who’s been let down pretty consistently by bad writing, feeble attempts to humanize her and round her out that don’t gel with her increasingly manic and unsympathetic outbursts. Her behavior would surely result in, at the very least, her being fired from her job if she weren’t on television.

Not so here. Dean helps Ed but never once stops spewing four-letter words or being totally outrageous—including one of the very last scenes while the credits are rolling when he manages a feat I’d read about in my college newspaper but never really thought was possible.

I’m not going to tell you what it is. See the movie for yourself and find out, while spending an hour and a half with characters who are hilarious, flawed, and utterly real, thanks to joyful acting and even better writing.


  1. um, the character Ed plays in the movie is named Tim. Tim Lippe. :-)

  2. Oops! My bad. Thanks for pointing out my mistake. Still, I hope you enjoyed this little gem of a movie as much as I did.