Out of the principal cast of The Hangover, Ed Helms seems to be the least likely guy to star in his own film. While Bradley Cooper has the looks of a matinee idol, and Zach Galifianakis has managed to find a niche as a clueless man-child, Helms has the talent and looks of a guy who should be a supporting character and not a leading man. Which is why Cedar Rapids has some intrigue to begin with on any number of levels, the primary one being if Helms has the chops to be able to carry his own film.
Tim (Helms) is an insurance salesman in small-town Wisconsin who was supposed to do big things with his life and never did. Settled into a comfortable existence, he gets tabbed by his boss (Stephen Root) to head to an insurance conference to save the company he works for in a “major metropolis” (at least to him) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Sharing a room with party boy Dean (John C. Reilly) and straight-laced Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and making the friendship of both a prostitute (Alia Shawkat) and kindred spirit Joan (Anne Heche), he discovers there’s a lot more to insurance (and life) than he ever really contemplated. And for a first outing as a headliner Helms acquits himself admirably.
Tim is essentially a grown up version of Butters from South Park, a naïve but genuinely sweet man in an industry filled with the exact opposite. Potentially played for farce, Helms takes what could be an overly exaggerated (and annoying) character and adds some depth to him. Tim may be a bit naïve but he has the sort of worldview that we all lose over the years. He thinks of his profession as a higher calling and gives it a sort of nobility that the others don’t. It’s hard not to like him because it’s just in the right amount; Tim’s a dope but he’s not too much of a dope. We laugh with him, not at him, and it’s a huge difference because it sets the tone for the film early on. These are exaggerated characters but not to the point where we don’t like them.
It’s a distinction that a lesser film wouldn’t have made and you can credit that to a first rate cast for an indie comedy. Miguel Arteta may not be the best director when it comes to getting great performances out of his cast but the one thing he’s always done well is create strong chemistry within his cast. Between Reilly, Helms and Whitlock they have a unique chemistry with one another because they play off of one another’s strengths. Arteta does a lot of good things with his story by allowing his cast to set the tone. He doesn’t use a lot of camera angles or a lot of cuts, allowing scenes to naturally develop with more of a “blocking” feel from television as opposed to a traditional film.
What the film doesn’t do well is more story-related than it is acting or character wise. Arteta hasn’t been known for this, the major failing point of his work since The Good Girl, and Cedar Rapids isn’t an exception. It tries to cram too much story into too few minutes, having several plot lines that could’ve been excised because they feel like filler. There’s plenty of material to be mined in Tim’s “coming of age” later in life that aren’t explored in favor of shenanigans that detract from the film. It gives the film a “padded” feel despite a running time barely over 90 minutes.
Ed Helms may never become an A-list comedy star, probably far from it. But if he finds a way to star in more films like Cedar Rapids, films that are clever at times and almost always entertaining, one can imagine there’s far worse fates to have as a comedic actor.
Director: Miguel Arteta Notable Cast: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche , Isiah Whitlock Jr, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Root Writer(s): Phil Johnston
Scott Sawitz is an Inside Pulse original. He's also been featured on The Ultimate Fighter.com, Fox Sports.com, Nerdcore Movement.com, CagePotato.com, Inside Fights.com and Film Arcade.net (among others). When Scott isn't writing about film he's making his own. Check out Drunk Justice Productions right here.