Two comedies from Sundance filmmaker alum premiered at this year’s fest, acting as vehicles for two popular actors to play genuinely nice but also incredibly naive guys. While Paul Rudd is playing against type for Jesse Peretz’s My Idiot Brother, Ed Helms of “The Office” and The Hangover is doing something that should have a familiarity to his fans in Miguel Arteta’s Cedar Rapids, which opens theatrically on February 11.
Directed by Miguel Arteta; Written by
Starring Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Stephen Root, Kurtwood Smith, Alia Shawkat, Thomas Lennon, Rob Corddry, Mike O’Malley, Sigourney Weaver
In his very first full-on starring role in a film, Ed Helms plays Tim Lippe (pronounced “lippy”), the second best salesman at the Blue Star Insurance in the small town of Brown Valley, Wisconsin where everybody knows him. Even so, he’s allows himself to be an underachiever, his only relationship being a once-a-week affair with his elementary school teacher (Sigourney Weaver). When the agency’s top salesman dies suddenly, Tim is sent to the ASMI insurance conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa to represent them in trying to achieve the coveted Two Diamonds rating. Once in Cedar Rapids, Tim rooms with two ASMI vets with disparate personalities, the conservative Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and the wild and outspoken Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly). Even though Tim has his goal in sight, the many distractions to be found in Cedar Rapids may throw his plans off course.
While Ed Helms has already proven a number of times he’s a comedian who’s genuinely likeable and clearly should be moving in the direction of his “Office”-mate Steve Carell with more lead roles, his character in “Cedar Rapids” doesn’t seem to deviate from Andy very much. He’s a really nice guy but super-naive about the world and to him, Cedar Rapids is the “big city” full of corruption and sin. Reilly’s character is the epitome of that and though Tim was told by his boss to stay away from him, that doesn’t happen and Tim ends up on wilder adventures as the convention progresses.
While Midwestern insurance salesman may not sound like the most exciting characters on which to base a comedy, theres a lot of humor to be found in the drunken activities that these particular insurance guys get into both on the clock and off during this conference, mainly due to the shenanigans instigated by Dean. Reilly’s character is so outrageous he effortlessly steals scenes from the film’s actual star, but the real breakout star that few will forget is Isaiah Whitlock as the straight-laced African-American insurance salesman who just has such a funny way of delivering a line that he really stands out as something we haven’t really seen before.
The ladies certainly seem to like Tim’s naivety, not just his significantly older girlfriend (Weaver), but Anne Heche’s character, one of the few women salesman at the conference, takes a shine to him, as does Alia Shawkat, a local prostitute who takes Tim out for the night of his life.
Unfortunately, the main plot involving Tim’s goal to get the Two Diamonds just isn’t strong enough to keep the movie interesting when it gets back to the story at hand in the third act, which is also where things get somewhat predictable. It also seems to run out of ways to make the audience laugh so it goes for a rather obvious opportunity to put Tim in a fish-out-of-water situation of a crazy party where he does drugs and gets into a fight.
The film feels somehow disjointed with Helms’ more downbeat scenes being kind of dull, then switching gears into over-the-top moments with Reilly. Certainly the writing is fine, but the film just doesn’t seem to flow, which is surprising considering how well director Miguel Arteta has handled similarly erratic character-based material in the past.
“Cedar Rapids” should offer more than enough laughs to be worthwhile and if you’re a fan of Helms or Reilly, neither of them disappoint, but with so many strong elements, we were hoping for something a bit more memorable.
My Idiot Brother
Directed by Jesse Peretz; Written by Evgenia Peretz & David Schisgall
Starring Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer, Rashida Jones, Hugh Dancy, Kathryn Hahn, Shirley Knight, Janet Montgomery, Steve Coogan
When big name actors appear in a movie at Sundance, especially in a movie that’s yet to have distribution, you can expect there to be a big deal made about it, and this new comedy directed by Jesse Peretz, the man behind so many cool indie rock videos of the ’90s, and co-written by his sister Evgenia, really is the perfect vehicle for Paul Rudd.
When we first meet Rudd’s character, Ned Rochlin, he is selling his vegetables at an outdoor market when a police officer realizes he’s dealing with someone not too bright and uses entrapment to have Ned sell him some pot. Ned’s arrested and his dog Willie Nelson is sent back to the farm with his girlfriend Janet (Kathryn Hahn) who dumps Ned for their farming partner Billy (T.J. Miller). With nowhere else to live, Ned starts showing up on the doorsteps of his three sisters who we meet during the opening title sequence. First, there’s Miranda, played by Elizabeth Banks, an ambitious reporter trying to get her break at the magazine where she works. Natalie, played by Zooey Deschanel, is a stand-up comic in a relationship with Rashida Jones’ lawyer, and Emily Mortimer is Liz, married with two children and trying to keep her marriage from losing its spark. When Ned stays with Liz, he’s the “bad influence uncle” to her impressionable son, and with his other two sisters, he inadvertently intrudes into their work and love lives.
Ned is another terrific nice guy role like we’ve seen Paul Rudd do so well, but he’s not just different due to his appearance with long shaggy hair, beard and Bohemian fashion sense, but also because he’s not particularly smart. Ned is incredibly affable and trusting, but he tends to shoot his mouth off to the wrong people, not having the common sense most people would have. That’s where the movie’s best laughs come from and Rudd is just perfect at pulling off the character in a completely natural way.
This is Jesse Peretz’s first film in roughly five years, and he’s assembled an amazing ensemble including a number of actresses who have played opposite Rudd in some of his best films, only this time creating a different dynamic. The scenes between Rudd and Banks are the best, but Deschanel and Mortimer are also well matched when it’s their turn to take on Ned. Rudd is allowed to get most of the biggest laughs, though Steve Coogan is equally funny as Ned’s brother-in-law, a pretentious and philandering documentary filmmaker who takes Ned on at the urging of his wife. (If anyone was ever hoping to see full frontal Coogan, you get a bit of that, too!)
There isn’t really that much of a plot as much as it’s seeing how Ned behaves and invariably messes things up in various situations; the only real arc for the character is in him trying to get his dog back from his unreasonable girlfriend. While Rudd effortlessly carries the movie by being in every single scene, it’s as much about how Ned’s presence in each of his sister’s lives allows them to come to terms with their own issues as it is Ned’s journey. The humor does get a bit slapsticky at times but most of it is quite clever, relying solely on the comic timing and interaction of Rudd and his co-stars.
“My Idiot Brother” may not exactly change lives, but it works perfectly as a situational comedy vehicle for Paul Rudd with all the warmth of an indie yet also the type of easy-to-digest premise that should appeal to a wide range of audiences.