A disturbing trend in cinema is the inability of some filmmakers to distinguish the difference between pathetic and kind. Really, they’re not the same thing at all, but over the past few years there have been scores of wide-releases with protagonists who aren’t nice guys so much as weak and naïve, not truly friendly because to be that one must have an awareness of what it means to be un
Miguel Arteta’s “Cedar Rapids
” might be the most egregious offender I can fathom, surpassing the similarly awful protagonists in “Dinner for Schmucks.” To call Ed Helms’ insurance salesman Tim Lippe milquetoast would be an insult to those who are merely weaklings. Tim’s a small town Wisconsin insurance man who apparently has never left his burg, nor does he seem to have ever watched television, read a magazine, or even spoken to anyone about what the world’s about.
Were this guy real, he’d be instantly unlikeable, a grinning idiot that has gone to great troubles to minimize his exposure to the slightest element of reality. Helms, of “The Office” and “The Daily Show” fame, proves unable to handle his nitwit character in a way that engenders empathy, but he does seem to be winking at the audience, a fatal mistake. Pathetic characters are best played without a sense of irony, and when John C. Reilly shows up, all I could think of was how better suited that great actor would be for the lead role, though even a fine performance could only do so much with this repulsive material.
The film’s contempt for Tim creates an awkward tension with the moments where we’re expected to laud his progress in the titular Iowa city, victories which include but are not limited to:
- Having sex with married (with two children) fellow conventioneer Joan (Anne Heche)
- Drinking himself stupid with insurance buddies Dean (Reilly) and Ron (Isiah Whitlock Jr.)
- Bribing then reneging on a deal with crooked, ultra-religious convention head (Kurtwood Smith, briefly naked for our displeasure)
- Smoking and snorting meth at a wild party with hotel prostitute Bree (Alia Shawkat)
Of course, it would be naïve of anyone to think that a major motion picture largely set in Iowa could be made without references to the state’s unfortunate image as a tweaker’s paradise, though I expect even some jaded viewers to be surprised when Tim describes his meth-snorting escapades as “super awesome” at the film’s close. And that’s where “Cedar Rapids” becomes especially reprehensible, as not only a failed comedy (virtually laugh-free), but as a moral train wreck. A glance at a list of great screen comedies will reveal no shortage of entries that feature protagonists reveling in various, often extreme degrees of immorality. Here, we’re told to feel proud of Tim because he humiliated his corrupt Christian boss, and that the other nastiness was all in good fun. Pic was actually shot in Ann Arbor, MI, instead of Cedar Rapids, the result of a scandal regarding Iowa’s film production tax credit.
Too bad, because if the city had to have a film this vile share its name, then it would have been nice to see some money from it.