Got to see a free movie last night, titled Cedar Rapids. Essentially a "fish out of water" story, it follows insurance agent Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) who frankly needs to get out. He doesn't know it, but he does. Having lived his whole life in the little town of Brown Valley, circumstances force him to represent his firm at a convention. Never even having flown before or stayed in a hotel, Tim finds himself in the big city.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Had it been New Orleans, he'd've died. What happens instead is culture shock, sin, exhiliration, friendship, trouble, desperate fear and--in the end--triumph.
Tim finds himself with two roommates at the convention: Ronald, the first African American Tim has ever met, a straight arrow workaholic by circumstance rather than preference, not at all bitter about it and in a nice piece of stunt casting (he's played by Isiah Whitlock Jr.) a huge fan of HBO's series The Wire. Then there's Dean (John C. Reilly)--very crass, very fun-loving, very loudmouthed and trying very hard to forget the end of his marriage. Along the way they're joined by Joan (Anne Heche)--a mischievous housewife who sells insurance on the side and considers the convention a little vacation away from her life.
A good friend of mine came along to see the flick, and didn't care for it. She saw the story as one of peer preassure, in which a man with morals and integrity gets pressured into doing all sorts of wrong things. Nor is she wrong, but that ignores the third act. Tim comes across as a genuinely nice guy. More than anything this comes across early during a little celebration for a co-worker who's done extremely well. An obvious choice as Tim gazes as the cake with this other guy's face on it would be annoyance, even anger. What we see is envy--nothing mean, just a simple desire to be as good, as successful, to deserve what he regards as an honor. Later, Joan calls Tim as a hero. He sees working insurance as something glorious, a sacred duty to put people's lives back together in the wake of disaster. She says he actually makes it sound cool to be an insurance agent.
Such a benign, simple way of looking the world just begs to be challenged. Not least because the guy also radiates naivete and lack of experience. Kinda helps make it easy for him. If Tim didn't endure a front end collision with reality, there'd be no story!
He has his first drink. And another. Then another. Cheats on his girlfriend with a married woman. Uses the pool after hours! A downward spiral. He even does something much, much worse--something that makes him feel soiled and depressed enough to accept an invitation from a nice hooker to her uncle's (very rough) party. That's where he gets beaten up.
From then on, the climax of the story proceeds to what my friend I fear ignored. Tim, in meeting his new circle of friends, finally loosens up. He oh-so-needed it, even if he stumbled and got hurt. Yet in the end he gave them something, too. They weren't using him, but liked him. When the chips are down, they help him turn the tables on some bad guys and do what they're supposed to do, what we all are supposed to do.
Stand up. Tell the truth. Do what you can for your friends, your neighbors, your colleagues, your clients. Grow a pair. Learn from your mistakes.
I laughed and smiled. The ending moved me a bit. By the end I not only liked these characters, but respected them. Some of it proved a little over the top for me. And the ending felt like a retread of Its A Wonderful Life. But no real complaints. I liked it. No a huge amount, because it wasn't quite as deep or complex as I'd like. Wouldn't mind seeing it again.