Cedar Rapids director fails at copying better auteurs

Cedar Rapids is the story of boyish insurance agent Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), who must attend a regional insurance convention in hopes of winning the coveted “Two Diamonds” award after the sudden death of his company’s best agent.

What ensues comes across as a bad Alexander Payne imitation.

At the conference, Lippe meets a colorful cast of characters from the excessively obnoxious Dean Zielger (John C. Reilly) to the ambiguously alluring Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche).

One of the script’s greatest weaknesses is female characters who bear very little resemblance to reality. If a female role is not a garden variety floozy (Heche, or Sigourney Weaver as a horny recent divorcée ), she is a prostitute named Bree (Alia Shawkat).

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Their roles in this film are intended to make Lippe seem like even more of an inexperienced loser who we can take pity on, and therefore relate to. But Phil Johnston’s and director Miguel Arteta’s painful misunderstanding of their characters is the only true source of laughter in this film.

It is not as if they don’t try to evoke intentional laughter; they just do it in the contrived ways. The film falls victim to a common trend in modern American comedies: the pandering use of pop culture references in the hopes of relieving the audience of having to think about real emotions or sentiments. When Zeigler drunkenly puts a bronze trashcan lid on his head, Lippe is naturally inclined to exclaim he looks like R2-D2 from Star Wars.

The real reference that puts the nail in the coffin is the character Ronald Wilkes’ love of the HBO program The Wire.

Wouldn’t you know it, Wilkes is played by Wire alum Isiah Whitlock Jr. In addition to their ineffective use of irony, the filmmakers employ clichéd tricks to tickle the funny bone such as naked men hugging, Ebonics, arrogant jerks with foul mouths, and death by auto-erotic asphyxiation.

The fact that Cedar Rapids rips off the genuinely funny films of its own producer (Sideways and Election director Alexander Payne) makes one wonder how Johnston so badly misses the mark. The answer to such a question rests on the important guideline when mimicking another director’s style: one must add original touches in order to find one’s own voice.

Arteta (Youth in Revolt) joins a long line of up-and-coming indie directors, along with Napoleon Dynamite’s Jared Hess and Juno’s Jason Reitman, who take far too many pages out of the books of innovative filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch.

To quote Jarmusch on the use of the word “quirky” in film reviews: “It’s just so goddamn lazy.” This rightfully applies to reviews of his films that use that dreaded crutch of a word, but applied to lazy efforts of filmmaking like Cedar Rapids, it’s simply appropriate.

Cedar Rapids is now playing at AMC Loews Boston Common and Harvard Square.