The idea of the naïve country boy getting an indoctrination into big-city ways goes all the way back to Aesop, whose 5th-century B.C.E. tale of “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse” was a lesson in the pitfalls that go with the pleasures of urban life. The humor in such stories always comes at the expense of the less-sophisticated country dweller. But there’s wisdom in the country experience that slowly reveals itself, and country values usually prevail. That code is prevalent in a wide range of TV shows and movies, from “The Andy Griffith Show” to the old “Ma and Pa Kettle” movies. The bumpkin may be the target of humor, but he typically gets the last laugh in a narrative that turns out to be highly ironic.
The country mouse in “Cedar Rapids” is an insurance salesman named Tim Lippe (Ed Helms, “The Hangover,” “The Office”), who is so naïve that when his recently divorced former middle-school teacher (Sigourney Weaver) seduces him and the two of them begin a torrid affair–his first, one suspects–he’s thinking of giving her a “promise ring” and wondering if she had feelings for him “back then.” “You were 12,” Marcy says, dryly, with slightly raised eyebrows. So Tim is set up to be as Brady-Bunch naïve and out-of-step with the times (and his own maturation level) as anyone can be, even in the tiny town of Brown Valley, Wisconsin.
Tim works at an insurance agency that has won the coveted Two Diamond Award the past two years running, largely due to the presentation of top agent Roger Lemke (Thomas Lennon). The award is given at the ASMI insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa each year to the agency that exhibits a commitment to community, country, and God . . . not necessarily in that order. Presenting the award is industry big-shot Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith), whose Midwestern values are about as sacrosanct as a politician’s. When Roger dies as a result of auto-erotic asphyxiation, we know that those famous Midwestern values are being lampooned–or at least the double standard of saying and believing one thing and doing another. So in Roger’s place, who better to send to Cedar Rapids, once home to American Gothic painter Grant Wood, than the poster child for Midwestern values?
The tryst Tim has with his former schoolteacher is more shocking, frankly, than anything else that happens during the film, but we come to realize that it was an enabler. It was the baby step–uh, make that oh baby, baby–that allowed Tim to board that plane for the “big city” (population, as of the 2010 census, 126,326).
In addition to the country mouse/city mouse formula, “Cedar Rapids” is also a coming-of-age story, with Tim eventually realizing that his teacher is human and Roger’s not exactly the hot-shot agent and presenter that he appeared to be. And the system? Well, it’s a good thing when he arrives that he falls in with three convention “veterans” who can show him the ropes.
There’s the guy Tim ends up rooming with–an African-American insurance agent (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) who’s into community theater and likes doing impersonations. And it turns out that Ronald Wilkes also invited a third man to share the suite in order to cut costs and give them more money to “blow” in the big city. That man turns out to be the wild man that Tim’s boss explicitly told him to avoid: Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a foul-mouthed lout who has sex and booze on the brain 24/7. Rounding out the group of veterans who initiate young Tim is the married soccer-mom and agent Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), who comes across as a more benign female version of Dean. The episodic plot follows their attempts to show the new guy how it’s done, and of course the arc of Tim’s character is the longest. He tries new things, he expands his world, he walks on the wild side with his three new friends, and he learns a few things in the process. So do we, in a humorous film that, for all it’s predictability, is still fun to watch.
It’s capably directed by Miguel Arteta, whose credits include episodes of “Ugly Betty,” “The Office,” “Six Feet Under,” and “Freaks and Geeks.” And the ensemble cast, which also includes Stephen Root (“WKRP in Cincinnati”), does a fine job of selling their characters and capturing “convention mentality,” which is akin to “vacation mentality.” As one of them says, what happens in Cedar Rapids, stays in Cedar Rapids. There aren’t as many funny lines as you might have hoped for, but the performances save this comedy of character. And if you throw out the extreme naiveté of the lead character, it feel real. I can’t remember the last time I could say that about a comedy. “Cedar Rapids” is rated R for . . . well, you know.
“Cedar Rapids” comes to Blu-ray via an AVC/MPEG-4 encode that delivers a true-looking picture. According to IMDB.com, this one was shot using an Arriflex D-21 digital camera, but there’s still texture here–still some grain. For a lower budget film this has a rich look to it, with natural-looking colors, strong black levels, and enough detail to make Blu-ray fans satisfied. It’s presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The featured audio, big surprise, is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that does the job. Apart from some bar scenes and manic episodes, “Cedar Rapids” is a diologue film, and it’s front-heavy. But at least the sound is spread nicely across the center and front speakers. It’s not a dynamic soundtrack by any means, but it feels full-bodied rather than flat. An additional audio option is in Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French and Spanish.
There’s a lot of unused space on this 50GB disc, because the longest bonus feature is just over 13 minutes, and that’s a compilation of cast interviews. After that, it’s a mixed bag. Two Fox Movie Channel Presents features profile director Arteta and writer Phil Johnston, with Johnston’s the more interesting because he talks about the inspirations for his screenplay. After that, there’s a four-minute clip about “Crashing a Lesbian Wedding,” a three-minute featurette about “Mike O’Malley – Urban Clogger,” a “Tweaking in the USA” drug house scene breakdown that runs in the six-minute range, a four-minute gag reel, and seven minutes of deleted scenes. Rounding out the bonus features are the theatrical trailer and a BD-Live exclusive that’s really not worth going online for: “Ed Helm’s Mad Chopper Skills,” which runs just under three minutes. You mean to tell me they couldn’t have put that on the disc? Come on, people. Either bury BD-Live, or prop it up.
You’ve already heard what “Cedar Rapids” has to say, but the ensemble cast does a good job of going over the same ground so that you don’t mind covering it with them. And Arteta resists the impulses to go over-the-top or be more obvious.