Mixing icky with sticky is always a tough balancing act for comedy filmmakers, but maybe Minnesotans are just better at hitting the sickie-sweet spot.
The new movie Cedar Rapids, in which Ed Helms makes a stab at flipping Willie Loman’s script as a pie-eyed insurance salesman from the boondocks (well, actually Brown Valley, Wis.), joins a long string of cracked comic looks at the loveable perseverance of those who live in our deep pocket within Flyover Country.
As the stalwart Tim Lippe, Helms heads up an impressive cast of comedians and character actors, all of whom do their best to find the humanity within what, at times, seems like a pretty oppressively provincial stretch of turf.
Lippe is a perpetual second-stringer at BrownStar Insurance, constantly basking in the shadow of Roger Lemke (Reno 911‘s Thomas Lennon). And I do mean “basking,” as he seems tickled just to even be working in the same room as an agent with as much sparkle.
When Lemke accidentally dies in a sexual situation everyone in town finds shocking, Lippe is recruited by his disturbingly obsequious boss Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root, doing the terrorizing here instead of being terrorized, as he memorably was in Office Space) to head out to the bright lights of the titular big city for the annual convention.
His task: to continue Lemke’s unprecedented streak of “Two Diamond Award” wins. Which may be the least of problems for the man who makes The 40 Year Old Virgin look worldly and cultured. Lippe can only just barely keep his cool as he starts networking with the hotshots from places like, say, Rochester — people like the heavy boozing Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly, in a performance that makes Dr. Steve Brule look like Alistair Cooke).
In the wrong hands, Cedar Rapids could’ve lapsed into harsh condescension, shooting small fish in a big pond. But Minnesotan filmmakers Phil Johnston and Jim Burke impress upon the proceedings an intuitive sense for how our people react to coastal relocation. (We’ll give the Cedar River the benefit of the doubt here.)
You could almost reason that producer Burke (working again with longtime partners Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, who are known best for Election and Sideways) and screenwriter Johnston (who, at one point, was filing stories as a reporter over at KARE 11) understand Lippe’s awe at the shock of discovering an overwhelming urban playground. They themselves did it on a much larger scale when they left the nest of the Twin Cities to head out to Los Angeles.
“We’re all Midwesterners, so there’s something about that that unconsciously allows you to see the world through that lens. We all felt like these characters should be treated with affection, and not looked down upon,” said Burke, adding that there’s something to be said for the outsider perspective. “Sometimes you can see something a little bit more clearly when you are from a place that couldn’t be further away.”
And yet, perhaps being from here gave them license to poke some fun at the social mores of our environment, much in the same manner as the brothers Coen did with Fargo, which was cited by both Burke and Johnston as perhaps their favorite of all Minnesota movies.
“We’re all slightly subversive,” said Burke.
You think? Cedar Rapids revels in uncomfortable, raw, occasionally perverted human behavior in a way that, thanks to Reilly’s force-of-nature performance, verges on cathartic.
“Here’s what I’ve said to my mother repeatedly,” said Johnston. “Real life is X-rated, with swearing and nudity. There is no killing, though, in real life. … So I actually think what we would consider perverted comedy is actually very sweet, a part of everyday life.”
Johnston’s script embodies that perfectly. The first 15 minutes of Cedar Rapids are almost painfully cloistered. When Reilly’s Deanzie arrives, it’s a full-throttle, full-release relief to come upon someone who’s Minnesota filter is clearly out of working order.
But Cedar Rapids wouldn’t be nearly as effective if Johnston wasn’t also so attuned to the way people in the Midwest say things so that they don’t have to say other things, and how that duality can lead to some of the most uncharacteristically impolite, Minnesota Not-Nice humor.
“Maybe it’s the long winters,” Johnston joked.