Three Imaginary Girls

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Cedar Rapids is a positive story about a good man from a small town who comes to the big city. He leaves changed forever with many a life bettered for his troubles. It has notes of a Jimmy Stewart sort of affair, if Stewart was making movies in an age where dick jokes, banging married women, and smoking crack with prostitutes were acceptable ways for a wholesome dude to roll. Hmmm…maybe I’d better back up (I fear I may be overselling the film a smidge). It definitely has its charms, but it’s not quite as compelling as the trailer could lead one to believe. It was light and enjoyable, with more heart than one would expect – but left me feeling is was just a solid “OK” on a scale from one to awesome.

Ed Helms (The Hangover, The Office) gets a turn as the lead playing Tom Lippe, a naive but not entirely innocent 34-year-old whose formative experiences drew him into the gentlemanly art of insurance. After a scandal rocks his local agency, he’s sent to represent the firm in a presentation for an industry award the firm needs to win to keep the doors open, at a convention in the BIG CITY. That metropolis being: Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Much of the initial humor comes from the “fish out of water” aspects of his journey. Lippe, a native of sleepy Brown Valley, Wisconsin, touches down from his first plane ride wide eyed at the splendors of OZ, aka Cedar Rapids. Cinematographer Chuy Chávez effectively contrasts drab small town Wisconsin against shiny Cedar Rapids. In particular, his composition visually cues us into Lippe’s perceptions arriving at the convention center hotel for the first time in ways that were subtle enough to only strike me post film.

At the convention, Lippe meets the rest of the ensemble cast. Specifically John C Reilly, Anne Heche, and Isiah Whitlock Jr. Reilly in particular seems to be having a blast as Dean Ziegler, the wild party guy that Lippe was specifically warned about by his boss. As the “intrigue” around winning the award unfolds, Lippe bonds with his fellow insurance professionals. The question as to what extent temptation will change him (and his fellow travellers) provides the heart of the film.

Some of the jokes kill, a higher percentage evoke more of a smiling reaction. But director Arteta and Helms produce a character that while a complete goofball, is likable. The folks appearing with Helms give the film just a bit more depth than your average comedy. Isiah Whitlock Jr. as the straightman, Riley as the foulmouthed party animal (possibly with a heart of gold) and Anne Heche as the “I only cheat at conventions seductress” create a much more rounded film than I can picture with other folks in the same roles.

Overall, I’d say its a pleasant way to spend a rainy afternoon even if it’s not going to change your world view. If the trailer catches your eye or you’re a fan of one of the actors and are planning to go, just enter with modest expectations and relax. I assure you, one can do far worse.

PS – if you’re a fan of The Wire it’s almost certainly worth the ten bones just for Senator Clay Davis’s Omar impersonation. I laughed when I saw it in the trailer, I laughed when I saw it on screen, and I’m pretty sure I’ll laugh when I eventually see the film on cable someday.

Cedar Rapids comes to Seattle via The Sundance Film Festival. During that event Director Miguel Arteta stopped in Seattle to screen the film at the Egyptian Theater.  While here, he sat down with Three Imaginary Girls to discuss Sundance, the film, and how the Omar impersonation was written before Isiah Whitlock Jr. was even cast.