By Jamie Steiner
Since 2004 hundreds of Hollywood executives have voted for
what they consider the best unproduced screenplays, the scripts that receive
the most nominations then going on to form an annual Blacklist. Increasingly
influential, the likes of Juno and Lars & The Real Girl emerged from this
curious selection process, garnering their respective studios with Oscar wins
and nominations. The latest project to benefit from the Blacklist is the
unexpectedly charming Cedar Rapids, a highly conventional comedy elevated by
its watertight structure and an excellent ensemble cast.
The central plot is far from revolutionary: Following the
death of an admired colleague in an auto-asphyxiation accident, the naive and
well-intentioned Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is sent to represent his company at a
yearly insurance conference held in the eponymous Cedar Rapids where he must
try his upmost to secure the converted Double Diamond Award for the fourth year
in a row.
In a love tryst with his former primary school teacher Macy
(Sigourney Weaver), Tim oozes inexperience, a victim of his own reluctance to
accept the darker side of human nature. So it is convenient, when a mix up at
the hotel means having to share a room with the infamously hell raising, coarse
talking Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a whirlwind of toilet humour and cursing
who is all too ready to administer a heavy dose of some necessary
mis-education. Thrown in at the deep end of the hard drinking world of
insurance conferences, Tim soon finds companionship in the affable Ronald
Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), the thrill chasing Joan Fox (Anne Heche) and,
against his better judgement and several forewarnings, even strikes up a
friendship with Ziegler.
Cast for the first time as a leading man, Ed Helms clearly
relished his opportunity to shine, his performance a finely measured balance of
nerdish conservatism, a sprinkling of loser and sympathetic earnestness, the
audience firmly on his side throughout. However, Cedar Rapids stumbles where
narrative is concerned, a predictable hotch-pot of overly familiar comedic
scenarios including not one but two scenes of wild inebriation which invariably
leads to excessive and out of character behaviour, an all too easy means to a
farce which a more inventive writer could have devised differently. The jokes
may come thick and fast but not without several significant misfires.
Whilst it’s a shame writer Phil Johnston didn’t drop some of
the more scatological elements and pursued other avenues instead, it is to his
and Cedar Rapids’ credit that it excels where so many other comedies of the
same vein have drastically failed, bringing out the best of its actors and
imbuing the film with genuine emotion.
In terms of its Blacklist predecessors, Cedar Rapids is
commercially no Juno but it certainly has the potential to become a quiet hit
and is hopefully the first of many a great thing for Ed Helms who expands on
his persona from the US version of The Office, proving he’s no one trick pony
and maybe even better than his co-star Steve Carrell who had, up until now,
stolen his limelight.