What I take to be the bottom line of Cedar Rapids, directed by Miguel Arteta (Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl) to a screenplay by Phil Johnston, is pronounced by Bree (Alia Shawkat), a juvenile prostitute who figures only marginally in what is otherwise the story of a small-town insurance salesman, Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), on his first visit (age approximately 35) to the big city. The big city is the eponymous metropolis (pop. 128,000) in Iowa. We know already that Tim must be shorn of his improbable innocence and instructed in the ways of the world without — for the sake of the audience’s sympathy — simply becoming cynical or corrupt. As a predictable part of this process he drinks and takes recreational drugs for the first time, has adulterous sexual relations with a colleague and is beaten up by a thug (Rob Corddry) during a wild and dangerous party at the home of Bree’s Uncle Ken (Seth Morris). To the sadder but wiser Tim, then, Bree says: “We’re all just selling something: “f***s, drugs, insurance.”
One sees the point of course. As part of Tim’s introduction to the world outside Brown Valley, Wisconsin, he must learn, as the rest of us have already learned and as they learned in Hollywood a long time before everyone else did, not to be judgmental. Even back in Brown Valley, old Tim has made a pretty good start on learning this lesson by carrying on an affair with his remarkably well-preserved seventh grade teacher, a divorcée named Macy (Sigourney Weaver), to whom he now considers himself in consequence to be “pre-engaged.” The film is at least honest enough to put the moral equivalence argument in the mouth of the prostitute, who has the most to gain from the respectability of being seen to be doing only what her neighbors are doing. And yet everybody knows that what she says just isn’t true. Selling insurance and selling sex aren’t moral equivalents at all. Maybe even Messrs. Arteta and Johnston know this.
Pretending not to know it, however, is a useful means of establishing the context in which poor Tim is to be stripped of his illusions, including (inevitably, I suppose) the illusion of Christian rectitude projected by the Midwestern Insurance Salesmen’s Institute whose convention he is attending in Cedar Rapids and its holier-than-thou president, Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith). That Orin will turn out to be corrupt and hypocritical is as predictable as Tim’s initiation into drugs and alcohol and rather a corollary of his sexual fling with the saucy Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche). Her explanation of why she slept with Tim in spite of her husband and small children back in Omaha — “This is my fantasy land; sometimes a girl just needs a vacation from who she is” — serves as its own benediction upon what would once have been considered shameful as well as immoral behavior.
All this is done well enough, if you’re predisposed to believe such stuff, but the making of the movie is the performance of John C. Reilly in the role of the vulgar, profane, disgusting glad-hander Dean Ziegler, everybody’s caricature of a salesman who becomes Tim’s new best friend and co-conspirator in bringing him out of his shell. Dean is the opposite of Orin, a reverse hypocrite. He pretends to be utterly amoral while secretly pining for the wife from whom he is now divorced, his kids and a respectable if now-lost family life. He is also the loyal friend that Tim needs to reaffirm his chastened but still-strong faith in humanity — which is the only sort of faith that Hollywood allows, if it allows so much. The ethos of the salesman, who is everyone’s best friend and who hopes to do well by doing good to his friends, is still something to believe in, even though much of the social and professional superstructure Tim’s industry has erected upon that bedrock belief turns out to be corrupt.
Morally and intellectually, I don’t think this model of contemporary reality quite holds up, but neither is it just nonsense like so much of the moralizing that comes out of Hollywood, including the moral equivalence argument made in this film. I also confess that, as a scion of both the much-maligned insurance industry and of small-town America, I find its sympathy for both these things compelling. At any rate, the picture offers a moral affirmation to which the as-yet uncorrupted bosom in the audience may return an echo and is therefore half of the reason that this movie is worth seeing. The other half comes from the fact that its moral statement need not be parsed too closely in order for anyone to enjoy it, since it is funny as too few movies are anymore. You may not agree with what Messrs. Arteta and Johnston have to tell us about the way we live today — I certainly don’t — but you should find much to amuse you anyway in the adventures of this modern-day Candide.
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