Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Feb 13, 2011 11:57 am 
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Man-child in the (tainted) promised land

Tim Lippe (the ably deadpan Ed Helms) is a second rank salesman in a small town insurance agency who, through a sudden twist of fate, is sent to a convention in the hellish cesspool of iniquity, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The minute he gets there, after his first plane flight ever, he meets a prostitute called Bree (the adorable Alia Shawkat) asking him for a cigarette. He gives her a butterscotch candy, blissfully unaware of her profession.

And it gets better, much better. Tim soon falls under the sway of some colleagues who've been to the convention quite a few times, maybe a few too many. Dean Ziegler (a sublime John C. Reilly) seems to live for the booze, sex, and raunchy talk of these occasions, mainly the raunchy talk. The accomplishment of Phil Johnson's able and entertaining script is the way that talk relaxes you and makes you smile. This is on one level a series of little character studies with one of those characters being redefined by his run-ins with the others. But Johnson also simply revels in the atmosphere of a Midwestern convention. It's a penny-ante event, but for its participants it's all pretty important at the time, and we never want to look at our watches. The filmmakers know how to keep us laughing and caring about these people.

Tim is a clueless (if nice) man-child but he's no failure with the ladies. He's been sleeping with his sexy former middle school teacher (a flawless Sigourney Weaver) and, after missing a come-on from an insurance lady (Anne Heche) not much subtler than Bree's, quickly manages to forget his girlfriend (he thinks she's his fiancee) in her arms, and on nothing stronger than cream sherry.

Tim's agency has won the convention's annual award for good salesmanship and good behavior a number of years in a row and his boss wants him to win it again this year by convincing the convention head in a one-on-one, a test that terrifies Tim. Once he's at the big motel, and surrounded by its temptations, this test seems even more daunting. I don't know if there are men as naive as Tim Lippe in the world of American business, or, if there are, whether I'd want to meet them. But context is all. In Cedar Rapids, at this silly gathering of lonely, bored, ordinary people, what is happening to Tim is rather momentous. Life-changing. Game-changing. This is the story of a man who rubs noses with venality and comes out a winner.

It's a mash-up of unlikes. Tim gets not just the staid black roommate, Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), whom he's been set up with by his boss, but the noisy, raucous Deansie (Reillly), whom he's been strongly advised to avoid. Most fearful is the hypocritical leader of the convention (Kurtwood Smith). Eventually Tim does a Very Bad Thing -- three or four of them, actually -- but, because of his ridiculously pure nature, his honesty, implausible courage, and sheer resilience, emerges not only the better for it, but able to take his new friends along with him on his new path forward. It's a dream, but a wise and pleasant one.

Director Miguel Arteta's movies have tended to focus on sweet, naive men, not always very successfully. His debut Star Maps, written by himself about a Latino boy come to LA to be a male prostitute for his father, is pretty unpleasant. Two collaborations with the provocative and talented Mike White brought mixed results. The clueless gay naif's tale, Chuck and Buck, though people seemed to love it, is jarring and pointless, but The Good Girl is a hilarious picture of dumb and dumber people associated with a big box store. The Cedar Rapids characters haven't that level of drollery, but they have a precipitous energy White only achieved in School of Rock.

Arteta has done a lot of television, a medium that has come to be a source of great writing and acting, but maybe not the best way for a director to learn how to shape a two-hour feature. The plot isn't Cedar Rapids' strong point. The set-up that gets Tim sent to the convention -- a star agent whose sexual games led to his death -- is manipulative. But the success here is in little twists of character and funny moments, Tim's jaw-dropping innocence; his full-on leap into a night of drugs and partying; a Tarantino-worthy act of heroism by the boring Ronald Wilkes; Deansie's modulation from foul-mouthed blowhard into loyal friend. We are far from the Todd Solondz-lite territory that Mike White has sometimes broached here and I don't know how significant Cedar Rapids is. But it's certainly lots of fun to watch.

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