Drown in These Rapids

This insurance-agent comedy is too dumb for its own good

It just gets worse. Already off to a disastrous start, the 2011 junk pile grows higher with an alleged “comedy” by Puerto Rican director Miguel Arteta that is unlikely to connect with any comic-book reader sporting a 70-point IQ, but will undoubtedly be a big hit with the kind of people who thrive on Will Ferrell movies.

Cedar Rapids is a ribald collection of stale corporate convention jokes, hateful putdowns of women and filthy one-liners you wouldn’t repeat at parties attended by middle-aged men wearing Chinese lampshades. Never remotely witty, intelligent or original, it demeans even the cheapest Hollywood rom-com clichés, and in addition to being contrived and embarrassing, it’s also downright stupid in the bargain. It comes as no surprise that they laughed in Sundance (natch), but to be honest, I confess I am too old to fall out of my chair shrieking at the sight of John C. Reilly bending over, cacophonously passing gas, and setting off an explosion with a cigarette lighter. These are the jokes, and they get worse as the movie drags on for 86 punishing minutes that are about as funny as a hip replacement.

The centerpiece of this fiasco is Tim Lippe, a nerdy, 40ish insurance salesman from Brown Valley, Wisc., played by Ed Helms, the most boring actor on TV’s The Office. When his kinky boss hangs himself, Tim is dispatched to an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Tim is such a cretin he has never traveled beyond the city limits of his hometown, married, ridden on an airplane, rented a car or consumed anything stronger than cream sherry. For love, he has sex once a week with the school-teacher who taught him when he was 12-years-old. (Don’t ask me what Sigourney Weaver is doing in this dreck.)

Because of a room shortage, Tim is forced to room with an obnoxious, alcoholic motor mouth named Dean (Reilly). Dean talks through sermons, walks in on people while they’re sitting on the john, substitutes grabbing everyone’s genitals for handshakes and wears out his welcome fast. Tim also falls under the influence of an agent named Joan (Anne Heche), a married slut who throws him into the hotel pool and then ravages him. This is a convention for dweebs, cornier than an all-night bash in a Holiday Inn, but before it’s over Tim fallen in love with a prostitute, skinny-dipped, snorted coke and smoked pot, entered the world of big-time debauchery, and sung an insurance song to the tune of “O Holy Night” at the hotel talent show.

The film builds to Tim’s presentation speech to the president in which he must win the annual “two-diamond award” his firm has been awarded for two years in a row—or lose his job.

The movie is a yo-yo of jarring tempos. The set-up is longer than the payoff. The plot is totally inconsequential. The so-called comic acting is desperately overwrought. In his first starring role in a feature film, it’s obvious that Helms is hoping for a big-screen miracle that will turn him into an overnight star like his Office co-star, Steve Carell, in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Unfortunately, he’s clumsy and charmless enough to make you wonder how he got hired in the first place.

Reilly does repulsive better than anyone. And for a supposedly straight character why does he vomit up so much endless dialogue about anal intercourse with other men? Nothing jells here, including the forced insurance-convention hijinks.

This is doubly disappointing, because Arteta is a director who has made some of the most imaginative and fascinating indie-prods in recent years. This is not one of them. This crude aping of every hack from Judd Apatow to the Farrelly Brothers represents the worst of what is happening in film today, just as a group of insurance salesmen in discount suits symbolizes the worst kind of cornball American convention in your grimmest nightmares. There must be a reason for all this. Nobody wants to have dinner with an insurance salesman unless he’s got a double life, and I can’t envision anyone sitting through a movie this bad without a motive.

Suggested Next Read

Revealing A Life Shrouded in Secrecy

Book Jacket

Revealing A Life Shrouded in Secrecy

By M. Scott Krause

Kenneth Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life (Random House, $27) is a reverent and carefully researched biography of the celebrated author of The Catcher in the Rye, but after 400 pages I’m not sure I know much more about J.D. Salinger than when I started. If there’s anyone to blame for the book’s shortcomings, it’s Salinger himself, who spent close to 60 years of his life avoiding the spotlight.