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Cedar Rapids, a midwest comedy

Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

A movie about a city in Iowa, eh? I don’t know. You say it’s got Ed Helms of “The Hangover” and John C. Reilly from “Step Brothers”? OK, I’ll bite.
“Cedar Rapids,” as many of you may know, is a movie set in Iowa but filmed in Michigan, and is about an insurance salesman from Wisconsin. Tim Lippe (Helms) is from the small town of Brown Valley, Wis., and works at a small insurance agency. An uber-naïve fellow, Lippe is sent to the bustling metropolis of Cedar Rapids, Iowa to represent his company at a regional insurance convention. There he meets a ragtag group of salesmen (and a saleswoman), forming friendships that radically alter his small town existence and cut free him free from his own inhibitions. Lippe soon discovers that the insurance game is a much wilder and more dangerous affair than he ever could have anticipated.

Midwesterners will automatically notice some familiar archetypes in “Cedar Rapids.”  Ever since “Fargo,” depictions of folks from the great white north have abundantly relied on “ya’s” and “you betchas.” In “Rapids,” Lippe fits the bill as a gosh-darn simpleton out of place in the “big city.” That’s the small-town guy, for you. Oh well, it’s just the role we were born to play.

Overall, Iowa doesn’t get too much play in the film. The action primarily takes place at a Cedar Rapids hotel (except, of course, for the one scene at a friendly countryside meth party). It’s not really a film about Iowa or insurance but rather a fish-out-of-water story–except for the fact that the fish tries meth at one point.

To the film’s credit, “Rapids” is not condescending to country bumpkins; Lippe is presented as more of an anomaly in his town than as a representative of the whole Midwest. In this way, Helms brings heart to “Rapids,” carrying a lot of water for the film. He truly believes that insurance agents are pretty cool and are a force for good in the face of tragedy. Helms creates a slowly devolving character, making Lippe very human through his innocuous worldview and how quickly that view is forced to change with the forces of reality. It’s not sappy or schmaltzy; the movie stays funny throughout all of the emotional transformations. That’s the sign of a good comedy–one that’s got heart but doesn’t let the audience know it.

After all, “Rapids” really needs heart when you consider just how raunchy the film is. It’s hard to tell from the trailers, but “Rapids” is chock full of “Superbad”-esque snippets of vulgar one-liners that cause you to laugh while you’re wincing. On that count, all the credit goes to John C. Reilly, who plays the fast-talking, loose cannon from Stevens Point, Wis.

Dean “Deansy” Ziegler. Deansy talks like your dad’s crazy friend or your drunk uncle: a really nice guy who has a flair for over-the-top dirty jokes. Growing up on the Minnesota/Wisconsin border, I can tell you that Reilly has the cheesehead dialect down to a point. It’s scary sometimes how much his little asides remind me of different people that I grew up around, albeit exaggerated versions of those individuals. Helms, too, strikes me as having studied a little bit about Midwestern politeness–the kind that doesn’t want to make a fuss, even if your roommate walks in on you sitting on the toilet. For all of the main characters’ eccentricities, they are all rooted in realistic traits, allowing “Rapids” to be absurd but still highly believable.

A movie about Midwest insurance salesmen may not seem like it has a lot to offer, but “Cedar Rapids” has a lot of pretty nice surprises. It takes from the best elements of the Apatow style of comedy without oversaturating the film with bromance or sappiness. And although it’s not a wall-to-wall laugh fest, it still delivers a lot of genuine humor, both subtle and outrageous. Even though it pokes fun at stereotypical perceptions of the Midwest, I think that’s just fine. We should be able to laugh at ourselves, right?


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