Miguel Arteta’s films have a specific sensibility, a whimsical yet grounded tone and feel that sets them apart from most everything else on the current cinematic landscape. The 45-year-old director’s work — from Star Maps (1997) and Chuck & Buck (2000) to The Good Girl (2002) and Youth in Revolt (2010) — is no doubt informed by his status as a Puerto Rico native who moved to the U.S. to finish his education (first at Harvard, then Wesleyan University) more than 25 years ago.
Arteta’s awkward protagonists inevitably yearn to find their place in an often perplexing world. His films are also marked by detail-rich settings and a distinctive sense of humor that mixes subtle pathos and character-driven comedy with sometimes uncomfortable but never cruel results. Think a less caustic Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways), a like-minded filmmaker who just happens to be a producer of Arteta’s latest, Cedar Rapids.
Yet another unique genre hybrid, Cedar Rapids centers itself on the unlikely coming-of-age story of Tim Lippe (Ed Helms, who’s both affecting and hilarious), an alarmingly naive but perpetually good-natured 34-year-old insurance salesman who’s never been outside his tiny hometown of Brown Valley, Wisc. Lippe’s life is turned upside down when he has to represent his company at an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he meets a trio of colleagues that will forever alter his once-narrow worldview: Dean “Deanzie” Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a boisterous party animal with ethically dubious intentions; Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a low-key, by-the-book guy who can’t hide his love for the HBO program The Wire; and Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), a sexy redhead who never fails to make the most of the yearly convention.
The foursome has a unique, seemingly organic chemistry that carries the narrative past a few second-half stumbles. And while Cedar Rapids isn’t quite as hilarious upon a second viewing, it remains a refreshingly humanist entry in a comedic landscape that continues to move in more a vulgar direction. Grade: B