John C. Reilly and Ed Helms are funny people. There is no doubt about that. If you haven’t laughed at something they’ve said or done while on a TV or movie screen then you’re sense of humor is clearly deader than my pet frog from fourth grade who escaped under my dresser and never came out. It stands to reason that the two of them together, headlining a film, would make for one darn funny movie.
It further stands to reason that if that movie appeared to be a quirky indie comedy that shoots for that “keeping it real” vibe and was from a director known for his quirky indie comedies that it would be ripe for some quality laughs and entertainment while also being a little though provoking and insightful. Reasoning even further beyond this one would assume that buying a ticket to this movie would be a good idea because you’d have a good time.
And you know what? That reasoning is dependent on your tolerance for good comedy in a poorly executed movie.
Worst cliffhanger-before-the-jump-to-after-the-jump ever, I know. However, it’s hard to come down on either side of the line with Cedar Rapids because it’s just so wildly on both the good and bad side of that line. Veering from hilariously funny to tonally off putting, Cedar Rapids never really seems to be able to get into the swing of things, but has enough funny moments to not make you dislike it.
Cedar Rapids is one of those movies that pokes fun at a small town American guy heading to the big city. Except in this case the big city is a hotel in Iowa where Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) has been sent in order to attend a midwest insurance convention for the first time. He is given one piece of advise by his boss before leaving: don’t hang out with Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), but it is OK to hang out with his hotel roommate Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). Unfortunately for Tim, Ronald, the whitest black man ever, has upgraded to a better room by allowing loudmouth, drinking Dean to stay with them both. Tim’s experience at the convention spins more and more out of control each night as he falls for Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), a fellow insurance salesperson at the convention who also happens to married with children — but that doesn’t really bother her all that much.
The gist of the film is that hilarious antics with the group of four ensue, and when those hijinks are ensuing it can be very funny. Reilly and Whitlock are especially funny, with Whitlock pretty much stealing every scene he’s being funny in away from the two leads. That’s a difficult task when you’ve got Reilly playing it up to the hilt on screen with you. However, Whitlock’s nerdy Ronald is the perfect foil to Dean and when the two are on, they’re hilarious. Heche and Elms both play perfectly good straight men (straight people?) to the other two’s comedy, but other than some drug induced hilarity it is clearly not really their show.
And it’s no ones show when the film starts to focus on its plot, almost grinding the movie to a halt at points. Tim ends up sleeping with Joan, who excuses her cheating by saying she needs a break every once in a while, and then proceeds to go on a crack and cocaine induced bender thanks to guilt issues over that and some other morally questionable actions he takes. There’s plenty of hilarious parts during all of this, but the problem is that the underlying issues of infidelity and hardcore drug use don’t jive at all with the more lighthearted comedy of the film. It’s like you’re driving down the road in a car laughing with your friends, but no one can really get comfortable because two of your friends are shooting up heroine and having an affair in the back seat (it’s very crowded metaphorical car). The film’s humor stops and goes in spurts, and it becomes incredibly difficult to understand why serious issues of infidelity, hooking and hardcore drug use are being glazed over like it is normal stuff that we should all except.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m fine with a comedy about infidelity or hilarious scenes where someone in the group gets whacked out on some odd drug. That can be hilarious if well done, but the way Cedar Rapids handles things just makes you wonder what the point of the film was, especially since after all this very serious stuff goes down the film wants to end like almost every other comedy does. Joan’s infidelity is thrown away by the end of the film like it wasn’t really that big a deal and if her husband and kids found out they’d really be cool with it because now we all understand her as a person. Meanwhile Tim wakes up the next day after taking three hits from a crack pipe and doing some coke (at least that’s what we saw on screen) none the more worse for wear and ready to not be an addict for the rest of his life.
Meanwhile, Reilly and Whitlock are being funny as hell and it’s just all too unclear to make a really funny movie. There’s definitely plenty to laugh about in Cedar Rapids, there just isn’t too much to applaud about.