Director: Miguel Arteta
Writers: Phil Johnston
Stars: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Sigourney Weaver, Isaiah Whitlock Jr., Kurtwood Smith, Stephen Root, Alia Shawkat
The Story: A chipper-but-nervous insurance salesman from an ultra small town has to make a presentation in the big bad city: Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he finds himself both corrupted and liberated by all of the temptations of modern life.
How it Came to be Underrated: When I saw this, I thought it had the potential to break out and become another Hangover-sized hit, only smarter and funnier. Instead, it sank like a stone. I guess it was a little too smart. (Or maybe it was just mis-marketed. Hopefully it’ll hit big on DVD.)
Why It’s Great:
- Arteta has been around for a while, and his previous movies, such as The Good Girl, were pretty good, but they fell into the recent trend of overly drab movies where the director seems to dislike all of his own characters. This movie is a big breakthrough. He retains his commitment to deadpan realism, but he’s stopped judging his characters and discovered a buoyancy he’s never had before.
- I thought Helms wouldn’t be able to hold a movie, but wow, was I surprised! Not only is he consistently hilarious, but he shows huge emotional depth and range as he travels the epic distance from innocence to experience. One of the hardest things to do is straddle the laugh-at/laugh-with divide. This man can fully commit to the bit and still win us over completely.
- But the real star of the movie is the always-reliable Reilly, who takes what could have been a one-note-Jack-Black-profane-friend role and transforms him into a tragic, hilarious fully-dimensional co-protagonist.
- In fact, a lot of underrated actors get a chance to shine here: Heche, Root, Smith, Whitlock, even Shawkat (Maeby from “Arrested Development”) as a happy-but-realistic hooker! These actors don’t always get great roles, but Arteta reminds us how much they can do with strong material. I even love the actress who plays Root’s wife, who doesn’t even have any lines! Just the resigned look on her face here as she calmly grabs the wheel while her husband freaks out makes me laugh.
- Obviously the initial joke is that Cedar Rapids is not actually a very big city, but that joke quickly gets turned on its head: we’re reminded that Iowa is home to happy gay marriages, unhappy meth addicts and all of the ups and downs of modern life. The heartfelt idea here is that any community, no matter how small, contains a full microcosm of every possible moral and ethical choice you could ever want or fear.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Reilly has gotten only a few chances to star and they’re both underrated gems: Hard Eight and Walk Hard.
How Available Is It?: It just came out on a disappointing bare-bones DVD.