February 23, 2011

Cedar Rapids

By Robb Witmer Full  |  February 23, 2011

Watching Cedar Rapids, I felt as though I was really inside Duets, like when you're in a dream, and you know that you are in a specific place, regardless of the fact that it bears no real resemblance. It feels so much like that place that there's no way it can't be.

The reason for that is that they occupy the same universe, the one where the American Midwest is an endless swath of highways connecting hotel bars and crack-houses. The characters' lives in both movies are centered around those bars, and making something of themselves inside of them.

The life of a Midwesterner must seem pretty lame to Big City Folk, and that of Midwestern insurance salesmen doubly so. But everybody's got to get their kicks somewhere, and for working types, that's what conventions are for.

In Duets, the prize was the Karaoke Championship... The NATIONAL Karaoke Championship. (One must assume this is a title sanctioned by the U.S. Karaoke Association.) What the characters are really after in that movie is a chance to be a star, even if it's only in front of a couple dozen people.

The coveted Two Diamond Award is at the center of Cedar Rapids, but like the National Karaoke Championship, it is an award that doesn't have a lot of meaning outside of the room it's presented in.

For the insurance sales representatives, the ASMI convention is their yearly chance to party like they did at state universities and branch campuses, and pretend like that's how they always act. Sleeping around, doing shots, acting like we're some sort of big-shot back home.

There's also always a chance you hang out with the wrong prostitute and get caught up in some crack-enhanced Bad Situations, but that's just part of the territory, a hazing for rookies. This kind of stuff is what the convention/hotel business was built on; Vegas exists because of it.

Cedar Rapids doesn't take nearly as many chances as Duets, not that there are many movies that should, but sometimes the safer choices are the right choices.

In Cedar, it wouldn't have felt right for a main character to be gunned down in front of a room full of people; in Duets, it didn't make any goddamn sense and doesn't work at all, but they had at least earned the right to try it thanks to all the other nonsense leading up to it (National Karaoke Championships, anyone?).

Of course, in both movies we have characters fall into heavy-duty drug benders that they have no business dealing with, so anything's possible.

I'm not sure Ed Helms has the chops to take a movie like this into the upper echelon of comedy, but I'm not sure that's what the aim is here. We know John C. Reilly has those chops, and maybe the riskier move is to let him take more of a lead. Then it's possible you're left with just another John C. Reilly-playing-a-dumbass movie.

There's enough of those, or at least there will be eventually. What if the point is to make a grown-up comedy about fucking around? We could probably use a few more of those.

Robb Witmer Full is the National Karaoke Championships correspondent for America-Thrust.