Beige to the bone

Pub date February 8, 2011
SectionFilm Review

FILM What if The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) got so Parks and Rec‘d at The Office party that he ended up with a killer Hangover (2009)? What then, huh? Just maybe the morning-after baby would be Cedar Rapids — named for the determinedly downtempo, unpretentious Iowa city where the smell of cooked oats hung in the air and students from nearby Iowa City, like yours truly, communed regularly at the local arena to bang head to big boys like Metallica. Sweet. And likewise director Miguel Arteta (2009’s Youth in Revolt) wrings sweet-natured chuckles from his banal, intensely beige wall-to-wall convention center biosphere, spurring such ponderings as, should John C. Reilly snatch comedy’s real-guy MVP tiara away from Seth Rogen (Reilly would never pull a Green Hornet on us, would he)? Is this the every-bro coming-of-ager that last year’s Due Date wanted to be before stumbling on its own smugness?

Consider Tim Lippe (Ed Helms of The Hangover), the polar opposite of George Clooney’s ultracompetent, complacent ax-wielder in Up in the Air (2009). He’s the naive manchild-cum-corporate wannabe who’s never been on a plane, much less partied with the competition. Lippe never quite graduated from Timmyville into adulthood: he’s banging his seventh-grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver) and still working at the small-town insurance company in Brown Valley, Wis., that took him on as a teenaged file clerk when his mother passed.

So when his insurance company’s star employee perishes in an autoerotic asphyxiation accident, it’s up to Lippe to hold onto his firm’s two-star rating — bestowed on upstanding insurance peddlers with good Christian values — and make its case at an annual convention in Cedar Rapids. Life conspires against him, however, and despite his heartfelt belief in insurance as a heroic profession, Lippe immediately gets sucked into the oh-so-distracting drama — in the form of playful playa Joan (Anne Heche); buttoned-up roommate Ronald, whose sole guilty pleasure seems to be The Wire (Isiah Whitlock Jr. of The Wire); and the dangerously subversive "Deanzie" Ziegler (John C. Reilly), whom our naif is warned against as a no-good poacher.

Temptations lie around every PowerPoint and potato skin: be it bribery in the presidential suite, cream sherry debauchery in the atrium pool, crack pipes at sketched-out farm parties, or hot convention sex. As Deanzie warns Lippe’s Candide, "I’ve got tiger scratches all over my back. If you want to survive in this business, you gotta daaance with the tiger." How do you do that? Cue lewd, boozy undulations — a potbelly lightly bouncing in the air-conditioned breeze. "You’ve got to show him a little teat."

Fortunately Arteta shows us plenty of that, equipped with a script by Wisconsin native Phil Johnston, written for Helms — and the latter does not disappoint. If The Hangover‘s "Dr. Douchebag" didn’t win over comedy fans, then his all-in, affectionate portrayal of a man with a child in his eyes might, even while Reilly threatens to steal the show with his troublemaking party/fire-starter, the sad-eyed life of the office who’s loathed by the boss.

He, too, has a place amid Cedar Rapids‘ stalwart brownness, and face it, the ’10s are shaping up to be pretty darn brown. Camel is chic, wood-grain is the freak, tea parties are geek, and the reality of hum-drum office-park Carell culture has come to look kind of sexy from across a crowded recession, after such widespread unemployment. It follows that the blandest towns become the sites of transformation; the smallest victories for the most conventional of conventioneers, the stuff of authentically feel-good comedy. Cedar Rapids may poke fun at the flyover states, but it pledges allegiance to those denizens’ essential decency.

CEDAR RAPIDS opens Fri/11 in San Francisco.