The Austin Chronicle

Cedar Rapids

Rated R, 86 min. Directed by Miguel Arteta. Starring Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Anne Heche, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Root, Kurtwood Smith, Alia Shawkat, Rob Corddry.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 18, 2011

Although the ads pitch it as being somewhere between The Office and The Hangover, Cedar Rapids is actually a semisweet charmer of a movie that fluxes between edgy comedy and palpable pathos. Its depiction of a good-hearted, small-town naif cluelessly running smack-dab into the gaping jaws of the real world is both authentically moving and outrageously funny. Successfully straddling the treacherous no-man's-land betwixt uneasy laughter and near-tears is a devil's wager for almost any director. Arteta, however, has crafted an entire career from mining the damaged or unfinished souls of marginalized characters who are eventually forced by often comic circumstances to come to terms with a reality that not only bites but gnaws, ratlike, at their truest interior selves. Previously, Arteta's adrenalized (in consistently surprising ways) the scattershot careers of Michael Cera (Youth in Revolt) and Jennifer Aniston (The Good Girl). In Cedar Rapids he takes a somewhat less ambitious approach to the overall narrative that, at first note, feels ominously cliché-bound. Casting is everything here, and the ensemble is frankly phenomenal. Former Daily Show fixture Helms is the painfully childlike, exasperatingly earnest life-insurance salesman Tim Lippe. He's so childlike, in fact, that he's having weekly sleepovers with one of his childhood teachers (the wonderfully deadpan Weaver). When his boss (Root) orders him off to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to make the big pitch for a coveted insurance-world trophy, Lippe is thrust into wholly unfamiliar surroundings that, in the end, transform him in remarkable (if somewhat predictable) ways. Among the insurance-planet peers and myriad surprises that await him in "the big city" are Reilly’s drunken and carousing vulgarian, Heche’s cynical nymph, and straitlaced Whitlock, who gets in a near-Dada-esque gag at the expense of his old show, The Wire. At its center, this is a fish-out-of-water story with all that that implies, but Arteta and his stellar cast of characters dig far deeper than most productions would bother and strike rich, dark-comedy gold. If it's not the scathing, borderline horror-comedy Arteta created in 2000's seminal Chuck & Buck, that's fine with me. This is smart, quirky, frequently laugh-out-loud comedy, in all seriousness. (See "He's Not in Wisconsin Anymore," Feb. 18, for an interview with Arteta.)

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