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Cedar Rapids

(2011) *** R
86 min. Fox Searchlight Pictures. Director: Miguel Arteta. Cast: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Stephen Root, Thomas Lennon, Rob Corddry, Alia Shawkat, Sigourney Weaver.

/content/films/3957/1.jpgThe out-of-town conference: what happens there is supposed to stay there. But small-town insurance salesman Tim Lippe has hung his hopes on the weekend’s American Society of Mutual Insurance conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa: his job and his self-respect depend on bringing home the prestigious “Two Diamond Award.” Relativity is a key part of the gentle mockery of Cedar Rapids, a snappy new comedy written by Phil Johnston and directed by Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt). To Tim (and his high-pressuring boss), the coveted “Two Diamond Award” means everything; to us, it’s an absurdly political marketing tool. To those of us near the biggest of cities, Cedar Rapids seems podunk; to Tim Lippe of Brown Valley, Wisconsin, Cedar Rapids is like the land of Oz.

The Mayberry-esque Brown Valley has at least one secret: Tim (Ed Helms) is sleeping with (and, he thinks, “pre-engaged” to) his former seventh-grade teacher Millie Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver). Their once-a-week rendezvous define a relationship that’s oddly sweet but also more than a little awkward. When Brown Star Insurance’s top salesman (a highly amusing Thomas Lennon) kicks the bucket, the job of representing the film in Cedar Rapids falls to Tim, a man who has never even taken a plane ride before.

Nervous but determined, Tim readies himself to prove he lives up to the “Two Diamond” standards of “community, country and God.” Everything about Cedar Rapids wows him: his rental car (ooh!), his hotel lobby (aah!), and his unexpectedly black roommate Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr. of The Wire). And wouldn’t you know it: Tim gets saddled with a second roommate, the very man he’s been warned to avoid at all costs: Dean Ziegler (comic force of nature John C. Reilly). A wantonly profane binge drinker still smarting from the breakup of his marriage, Ziegler is so degenerate that he considers “degenerate” a compliment.

Some at the ASMI conference are evangelists (like convention organizer Orin Helgesson, played by Kurtwood Smith), some are realists (like Ronald) and some are world-weary cynics, like Ziegler, insurance saleswoman Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche) and local prostitute Bree (Alia Shawkat). But just try to resist Tim’s optimism, warmly embodied by quirk-meister Helms: Tim hands out butterscotch candy as an icebreaker, fer gosh sakes. Though she’s married, Joan finds herself drawn to Tim’s genuineness, which is more powerful by far than his naiveté.

Cedar Rapids doesn’t break any ground, but it pleasantly evokes Fargo and the oeuvre of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (who get producer credits here) in its detailed and consistently funny observation of small-town sincerity muddling through a dog-eat-dog world. Is it possible insurance companies have gotten a bad rap? Is it possible integrity still means something? Tim has to run a gauntlet of sex, drugs and karaoke to find out, but his trials are our laughs and smiles: for a good time, call on Cedar Rapids.

[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 6/21/2011

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Fox gives Cedar Rapids the "super awesome" treatment in its Blu-ray + Digital Copy special edition. A/V specs are excellent, with a digital-to-digital transfer that perfectly retains the film's theatrical look: it's a natural picture, with accurate color representation, solid contrast and strong shadow detail, with a total absence of digital artifacting. The subdued lossless DTS- HD Master Audio 5.1 mix likewise stays true to its source, with fine dialogue representation and only minimal use of rear channels—to be expected for a low-key comedy.

Bonus features kickoff with six "Deleted Scenes" (7:19, HD) and a "Gag Reel" (4:17, HD).

"Convention Connection" (13:19 with "Play All" option, HD) compiles seven separate interview featurettes with the stars: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Anne Heche, Stephen Root, Kurtwood Smith and Alia Shawkat.

"Mike O'Malley - Urban Clogger" (2:55, HD) shows the actor being trained by clogging instructor Shane Gruber.

"Tweaking in the USA"
(6:13, HD) talks to Helms, director Miguel Arteta, Rob Corddry, Shawkat and Seth Morris about the filming of the party scene, which we also get to see from behind the camera.

"Wedding Belles - Crashing a Lesbian Wedding"
(4:16, HD) similarly focuses in on the filming of one sequence, with interview clips of screenwriter Phil Johnston, costume designer Hope Hanafin, and production designer Doug Meerdink.

Rounding out the disc are "Top Notch Commercial" (1:16, HD), the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:27, HD), "Fox Movie Channel Presents - Direct Effect Miguel Arteta" (6:37, SD), and "Fox Movie Channel Presents - Writer's Draft Phil Johnson" (6:48, SD). Via BD-Live, one can also access "Ed Helm's Mad Chopper Skills" (2:26, HD).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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