By Brian Lafferty
July 21, 2011 (San Diego) – Cedar Rapids is the type of comedy I would expect from Fox Searchlight Pictures, the subsidiary of 20th Century Fox that specializes in independent film. If it was 20th Century Fox distributing the movie (which stars Ed Helms of The Office and The Hangover as well as John C. Reilly) we’d have a raunchy, broadly-humored comedy.
But as I saw the Fox Searchlight logo, I knew that wouldn’t be the case. Directed by Miguel Arteta, Cedar Rapids is subtle, sophisticated, and with enough of an independent film vibe to avoid a mainstream label.
Ed Helms is an insurance salesman tabbed for the first time to represent his company, which is set to receive a top award for the third straight year, at a convention in Cedar Rapids. There he encounters a veteran (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and oddball (Reilly) and a nice, pretty married woman (Anne Heche) whom he takes a liking to.
The movie relies less on slapstick and more on dialogue for its humor. This is admirable but I constantly questioned the film’s subtle approach. Call it typecasting, but the directing style and the casting hinder the film. The actors look like they want to be themselves and want to be more overt but they look uncomfortably constrained.
The one exception is Reilly, who is his usual boisterous and funny self. It doesn’t feel out of place. If Helms, Whitlock, and Heche had the same energy, it would have been balanced while still retaining the non-mainstream tone. Instead, they elect to sit on the sidelines.
It’s easy to call dialogue well-written but I usually try to reserve that phrase for screenplays that use high-quality wordage. Despite the underwhelming performances by those not named John C. Reilly, the verbal interplay between the characters kept me in the moment and provided a few laughs.
The DVD transfer brings out a lot of the brown spectrum that cinematographer Chuy Chávez makes use of. This includes the rich mahogany imbued in the color scheme and production designer Doug J. Meerdink’s wood-flavored sets. The transfer does more than match the color of the characters’ brown suits; it is rich and gorgeous to the point where it overpowers the actors.
Cedar Rapids is an innocuous, OK film. It was decent but that’s as far as it goes.