He's Not in Wisconsin Anymore
Director Miguel Arteta on his bumpkin-in-the-big-city comedy, 'Cedar Rapids'
For Tim Lippe, what happens in Cedar Rapids one convention weekend doesn't stay in Cedar Rapids. And that's a good thing, because Lippe, an insurance salesman played by Ed Helms in his first leading comedic film role, arrives in Iowa as a solitary naif from Brown River, Wis., but leaves the big city a wiser man surrounded by true friends. Even though he's a last-minute replacement, Lippe is as awed by the honor of representing his agency as he is by his first airplane flight and a hotel that uses key cards and has a pool in the atrium. Tasked with bringing home the coveted Two Diamonds award, which honors a firm's conservative moral values and righteous insurance sales, Lippe is devoted to his mission, with no intention of having his honor sullied by his rowdy fellow conventioneers. But by the time he departs, Lippe has learned that he has placed his faith in the wrong people. Furthermore, the people he had been warned to avoid actually turn out to be the best buddies a guy could ever have.
"What interests me are movies about people who are damaged emotionally but have the courage to lead with that damage," said director Miguel Arteta when I spoke with him by phone last week. "Then, ironically or comically, that ends up helping them. I could really relate to this guy who can see the good in everything but just needs to get a little wiser."
Cedar Rapids is Arteta's first outright comedy, following such films as Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl, and Youth in Revolt – movies that walk a more jagged line between comedy and drama. The comedy in Cedar Rapids is sweet, too, even though it contains an ample amount of the kind of raunchiness seen in Helms' breakout film, The Hangover. Cedar Rapids is written by first-time feature writer Phil Johnston, who was once a weatherman in Des Moines, Iowa, and the script reveals a definite fondness for the Midwest. "Phil found Ed before he wrote the script," explains Arteta. "Before The Hangover, he was a fan of Ed's from The Daily Show. And through a friend of a friend, Phil found him and said, 'I have this idea.' To Ed's credit, he said, 'It's perfect for me; let's develop it together.' And they hashed out the story for about six months, and then Phil wrote it in two weeks. Then they took it to the king of Midwestern comedies, Alexander Payne [About Schmidt, Election], and he loved it and wanted to produce it and gave them a few notes. Then a couple of weeks later," laughs Arteta, "they had a director's draft and said, 'Now, in order to make this little love letter to the Midwest, we need a Puerto Rican.'
"Payne and his producing partner, Jim Taylor, were really great producers," Arteta continued. "Alexander wanted to make sure that we didn't stereotype the Midwest. We had written that [Lippe and fellow insurance agent Joan Ostrowski-Fox, played with just the right amount of tenderness and vivacity by Anne Heche] would go to an Olive Garden to have their date. And he said, 'No, make it a sushi place.' And he watched the language very carefully. He knows how to have fun with Midwestern characters without ever making fun of them."
It helps to have wonderful actors like John C. Reilly (Cyrus) and Isiah Whitlock Jr. (The Wire – and to be fair, the film's side jokes about The Wire were written before Whitlock was ever cast) to flesh out those characters. Along with Heche, they form a triumvirate that surrounds Lippe and helps remove some of the wool that's been pulled over his eyes by others. Arteta describes Cedar Rapids as "The Wizard of Oz of insurance pushers. Ed is Dorothy going to the big Emerald City of Cedar Rapids. Along the way, he meets these three weird characters that need his help [as much as he needs theirs]. This is also a movie about friendship, a love poem to friendship and how unexpectedly you can make a lifelong connection out of nowhere." As Whitlock's Ronald Wilkes, in his understated way, might say about this comedy: "N.T.S. – not too shabby."
Cedar Rapids opens in Austin this Friday, Feb. 18. See Film Listings for showtimes and review.