Pop Aye


Never get between a man and his elephant.

(2017) Drama (Kino Lorber) Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Penpak Sirikul, Bong, Chaiwat Khumdee, Naronng Pongpab, Yukontorn Sukkijja. Directed by Kirsten Tan

Sometimes we get feelings in our lives that threaten to overwhelm us, feelings we just can’t ignore. They become the elephant in the room, that feeling like we don’t fit in any longer or never fit in, that life has somehow managed to pass us by. Sometimes it takes a desperate action to get our lives back in order.

Thana (Warakulnukroh) is an architect who no longer feels at home in the firm he helped put on the map. Once a brilliant, bright shining future, he designed Gardenia Square, a shopping center which is now slated for demolition a mere twenty years after it was built. The son of his former boss now runs things and has replaced most of the architects with younger men who look at Thana as something of a dinosaur whose only use is to provide files.

Things are bad at home as well. His wife Bo (Sirikul) no longer seems attracted to Thana – and to be fair, his attempts at seduction are mostly awkward. Bo lives to shop and while her husband was a well-respected architect, there were plenty of things to buy. These days she knows she’s married to a man widely regarded as a fool and their marriage is a shell that isn’t going to last much longer. She seems shallow when we first meat her but as the movie goes on we see that there are heretofore hidden depths that explain her actions somewhat.

One day in the streets of Bangkok Thana spies an elephant (Bong) who he believes to be the elephant that he once had as a boy in the village of Loei, some 300 miles northeast of Bangkok. Nicknamed Popeye after a favorite cartoon of his as a youth (he trained the elephant to do the “toot toot” at the end of the “I’m Popeye the sailor man” theme), the elephant is mostly a means of making a quick buck for the mahout that owns him. Wanting more for his beloved elephant, Thana buys him on the spot and tries to bring him home but Bo is not having it.

Instead, Thana who has grown tired and disillusioned with city life decides to return to Loei where Thana’s Uncle Peak (Pongpab) will care for the creature. He and Popeye begin a journey from the bustling city of Bangkok into rural Thailand where they will meet a bevy of eccentric characters, including a transgender woman named Jenny (Sukkijja) who Thana treats with some compassion and who eventually gets a chance to return the favor, Dee (Khumdee), a gregarious homeless man living in an abandoned gas station who knows that his days are numbered but only regrets having left the love of his life whom he wishes to connect with one last time and a pair of officious police officers who are trying to move Thana and Popeye to the police station for “violating urban tidiness” even though the cops encounter the two on a road in the middle of nowhere.

All of these encounters serve to help Thana grow into a different man, one at peace with the disappointments of his life. While it may be true, as Thomas Hardy once put it, that you can never go home again, Thana finds out the secret to life; home is where you are at.

Tan was born in Singapore and has lived in a variety of places including Thailand where she worked as a t-shirt vendor on the streets of Bangkok. Now based in New York after attending the Tisch School of Visual Arts, she has made several impressive shorts. This is her feature-length film debut and it is a strong one. The movie has a gentle kind of surrealism to it that makes of unusual situations a kind of normality that makes them more palatable to the viewer. There is a sense of humor throughout but it is a gentle one, more of a chuckle than a guffaw at the ridiculousness of life.

The cast is mainly unprofessional but they do a fair enough job in conveying the various eccentricities of the various characters involved.  Warakulnukroh, a former progressive rock musician, manages to convey the puzzlement of Thana as he moves through a life that has left him behind. I don’t get the sense that he’s trying to adjust very much; he seems to be fairly bothered by the situation but doesn’t seem too motivated to change things until Popeye shows up. Khumdee also has some quiet moments that are compelling in his all-too-brief appearance here.

Most important here is the elephant and he is more expressive than a lot of human actors I’ve seen. I’ve never had the privilege of looking directly into the eyes of an elephant but there is a wisdom and sadness locked in those pachyderm eyes, an emotion that conveys empathy for the plight of Thana and by extension, himself. In many ways, Popeye is our avatar, marching slowly and resolutely towards an end that is pre-ordained but not necessarily without surprise. It is indeed the journey and not the destination since we’re all headed the same way anyway.

The movie is pretty slow-paced and might have benefited from some shorter more concise scenes particularly in the middle third. Keep in mind that an elephant never gets anywhere from anywhere else quickly so your best bet is to sit back and just enjoy the ride and that’s really good advice for watching any movie like Pop Aye. Allow it to wash over you and immerse you in its gently skewed universe. The ending is a little unexpected which is most appreciated, and you never really know what’s around the next bend in the road. All good journeys are like that.

REASONS TO GO: The film has a low-key sense of humor. The elephant is a keeper.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a touch too long and may be too slow-paced for some viewers. Some characters just fade from the movie without explanation.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tan won the screenwriting award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, becoming the first filmmaker from Singapore to win an award at the prestigious event.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walkabout
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: I Don’t Feel at Home In this World Anymore

Toni Erdmann


Where the wild things are.

(2016) Comedy (Sony Classics) Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Pütter, Ingrid Bisu, Hadewych Minis, Lucy Russell, Victoria Cocias, Alexandru Papadopol, Viktoria Malektorovych, Ingrid Burkhard, Jürg Löw, Ruth Reinecke, Vlad Ivanov, Mihal Manolache, Radu Bȁnzaru, Niels Borann, Radu Dumitrache, Klara Höfels.. Directed by Maren Ade

 

We all know somebody in our lives who simply can’t take anything seriously. Who knows, it even might be you. Behind the occasionally inappropriate humor and unending stream of jokes however a little wisdom might actually show up even more unexpectedly than you might think.

Winfried Conradi (Simonischek) is a music teacher living in Germany, who has retired none too gracefully from his profession. At his final performance with his student chorus, he has them all dress like zombies and he as the Grim Reaper, a joke that has his colleagues and parents scratching their heads, not to mention family members who have gathered to celebrate his retirement. Among their number is his only daughter Ines (Hüller) who has just jetted in from Shanghai on her way back to Bucharest. She works for one of those corporate consulting firms that usually advise big companies to lay off great numbers of their staff. She has a new project with an oil company whose boss is eager to get the cost savings of a mass layoff but doesn’t want to appear to be the bad guy so Ines will do it by recommending it. In taking one for the team, she knows she might finally get that promotion she’s been promised over and over again – but has never received.

Ines holds off her father at arm’s length with her cell phone grasped firmly in hand; not all the calls she claims “she has to take” are actually there but whatever works to give herself some space with her dad with whom the relationship has been stretched to the breaking point as long as they can remember. Shortly after Ines leaves with a half-hearted invitation for him to visit, an event occurs for Winfried that convinces him he needs to connect with his daughter – somehow.

Without any prior warning he shows up at her office in Bucharest. She takes him to a party at the American embassy but things become awkward when she begins to realize that her dad is much more socially accomplished than she is. Worse still, most of the people she works with are men who are either dismissive of her abilities, attracted to her sexually or simply hostile towards women in general. The visit with her dad doesn’t go well and he heads back home.

Only he doesn’t arrive at his destination. Instead, he shows up as Toni Erdmann, a life coach with a rumpled appearance, a brunette wig with long flowing locks and outrageous false teeth with a distinct buck-toothed grin. Ines is horrified particularly when “Toni” claims he is the life coach of the oil company’s CEO that she is trying to woo to go with her company’s program. And the longer “Toni” hangs around, the more empty her life seems.

This was on the shortlist of the Foreign Language Oscars this year and was a critical hit at Cannes, although critics were absolutely mystified that it was virtually ignored by the juries there. I have to say that I’m not on board this film as some of my colleagues are; at more than two and a half hours long it is more of a marathon than a sprint. Ade apparently chose no to edit down further for the sake of pacing; on the other hand there are scenes that go on far too long. For example, there’s a scene when Ines sings “I Will Always Love You” – the Whitney Houston hit – from beginning to end that could have been shortened, as could a scene at one of many, many parties and social outings that it appears that Romanian workers have a far more party atmosphere than their American counterparts.

The humor here is more subtle and sometimes awkward; Americans of late have seemed to prefer more outrageous, over-the-top humor that is both raunchy and essentially brainless. This is by no means a joke fest – often the viewer needs to think about what he or she has just witnessed for a moment or two before the absurdity settles in. As Da Queen might characterize it, the humor here is quiet which is a nice change from the loud overbearing comedies that are in favor at the moment.

The performances by both Simonischek and Hüller are outstanding. Simonischek, a renowned Austrian actor, never lets the character get to be a caricature of itself. Because he plays things low-key the absurd situations that Winfried/Toni creates have more impact. Hüller is also a revelation, giving Ines an uptight frayed nerve tone that is a poke at the career-obsessed in general. She’s so busy earning a living that she is not actually living and her dad knows that and tries, in his own way, to point it out to her. Sometimes it can be actually touching when he hugs her near the end after a bizarre appearance at perhaps the most awkward birthday party ever caught on film.

We do see a change in Ines as the film progresses but not one so great that it beggars imagination. Instead, we see a subtle change in her as she starts to let the cracks in her façade open up and allow her true face to reveal itself. It isn’t always an easy journey here – some of the scenes go on far too long – but otherwise this is a terrific and occasionally brilliant film that may test your patience over its running time but is a worthwhile investment of that time nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: The humor is subtle which is a nice change of pace. Terrific performances by Simonischek and Hüller make this easy to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexual content of a very overt nature, graphic nudity, some brief drug use and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: An English language remake is on the way, with Kristin Wiig and Jack Nicholson in the lead roles. If the casting holds, it will be Nicholson’s first onscreen appearance in more than a decade.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nine Lives
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Harmonium

The Mermaid (Mei ren yu)


"Ursula? Where?"

“Ursula? Where?”

(2016) Fantasy-Comedy (Sony International) Chao Deng, Jelly Lin, Show Luo, Yuqi Zhang, Pierre Bourdaud, Ivan Kotik, Tsui Hark, Kris Wu, Kai Man Tin, Ke Bai, Yang Neng, Bo Xiaolong, Mei’e Zhang, Lianshun Kong, Zhang Wen. Directed by Stephen Chow

As we continue to wreak havoc on our environment, it only stands to reason that eventually our environment will wreak back. One can only take so much crap before fighting back.

Self-made entrepreneur Liu Xuan (Deng) has purchased the land surrounding the Green Gulf to create his own sanctuary there. However, that darn marine life insists on staying so Liu gets his top scientist (Kotik) to create a device that will send the local marine life fleeing for its life – a kind of a super-sonar that causes fish to explode, their faces to become badly burned and all sorts of other nasty consequences.

There is a colony of mer-folk who live in the Gulf who are none too happy about this turn of events. After legal means of preventing Liu’s deprivations fails spectacularly, their leader – a mer-octopus named Eight (Luo) who also happens to be something of a pop star – decides to kill Liu to save his family. He enlists comely Shan (Lin) to seduce Liu, a notorious lady’s man, and lure him to the mermaid lair in a wrecked ship on the shore of the gulf where the angry octopus will seal the deal.

At first things go badly; the mermaids and mermen have absolutely no concept of human beauty, so Shen comes off looking more deranged than desirable. However, when approached by predatory Ruolan (Zhang), a partner in the Green Gulf project who wants to seal the deal with a physical liaison with Liu, who decides to use Shen as leverage. However, despite the deadly plot, he doesn’t count on falling in love with Shen. Nor does she count on falling in love with him.

So things are now FUBAR in both camps and of course, this being a Stephen Chow movie, the fur is going to fly – or in this case, the scales – and there’s going to be plenty of sushi and human carnage before it’s all over.

This is the highest grossing film in Chinese history, although it was only released a few months ago and was competing with Star Wars: The Force Awakens so it’s a pretty impressive accomplishment assuming its legitimate (there has been some controversy over China’s fast and loose box office numbers). The movie pushes a little bit the boundaries of what is acceptable in Chinese culture, being a little critical of the role that business plays in the despoiling of our planet, something that is seldom talked about openly in China.

Chow, who lately hasn’t been appearing in his own films the way he used to a decade ago, has a very broad style which syncs well with the Chinese sense of humor. Think silent movies; a lot of the humor comes from exaggerated facial expressions and from almost slapstick situations. Some Westerners tend to find this humor unpalatable and do be warned that while there are many genuinely hysterical scenes in the film, not all of them are going to appeal to our cultural humor.

The CGI is a little on the cheesy side as bodies go flying through the air. Be warned that this isn’t up to the standards most Hollywood films adhere to in terms of effects, but nonetheless the movie is still good looking and above all, fun. I was tickled by the irreverence and the broad strokes – there’s a teppanyaki scene that is one of the funniest single scenes I’ve seen in any movie anywhere this year.

This won’t be for everyone and even fans of Asian cinema in general might raise an eyebrow or two at some of the madness that transpires here, but I must have been in the right frame of mind for this because I enjoyed it immensely. Go in and just let the silliness wash over you like a velvet wave. It’s not meant to have too much brain power applied to it, even though there are some serious undertones to the movie’s message, which came to me mostly after the final credits and to be honest never really disturbed me during the course of the movie’s silliness. And what better way to get a point across than through a sneak attack?

REASONS TO GO: Fun is the rule of the day. Some really hilarious moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Moments of cheesiness. Some of the humor may be a little too broad for Western tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and over-the-top gore, although not terribly realistic.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The interiors were shot in a former glass factory in Shenzen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kung Fu Hustle
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Bunny the Killer Thing

Strange Magic


Welcome to Fairyland Idol.

Welcome to Fairyland Idol.

(2015) Animated Feature (Touchstone) Starring the Voices of Evan Rachel Wood, Alan Cumming, Kristin Chenoweth, Meredith Ann Bull, Sam Palladio, Peter Stormare, Maya Rudolph, Alfred Molina, Elijah Kelley, Llou Johnson, Tony Cox, Joe Whyte, Gary Rydstrom, Robbie Daymond, Sterling Sheehy, Amanda Jean Young, Nicole Vigil, Brenda Chapman. Directed by Gary Rydstrom

At the risk of making this review about the reviewer – a cardinal sin – I want to preface this particular review with a little bit about me. I try to be fairly lenient whenever viewing a movie. I honestly try to highlight the things about a film that work rather than focus on the things that didn’t. I try to criticize constructively as often as possible, sometimes with suggestions on what I think might have improved the movie. I don’t look for pithy bon mots at the expense of the filmmakers or the cast, or at least I try not to. Sometimes it’s unavoidable; I’m only human after all.

I give out few perfect scores, but I do hand them out, usually about three or four a year. However, up until this point, more than five years into this blog I haven’t ever – not once – given out a zero. Until now.

Strange Magic is an animated feature from LucasFilm, with a story written by George Lucas himself that is loosely – very loosely – based on Shakespeare’s immortal Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s actually a brilliant idea – that’s a Shakespeare play that cries out for being the subject of an animated feature; just not this one.

After discovering her husband-to-be has been cheating on her, fairy Marianne (Wood) turns her back on love, becoming a fairyland version of Xena, Warrior Princess instead. Her younger and blonder sister Dawn (Bull) is boy-crazy in the way that mid-teen girls can be. Her good friend Sunny (Kelley) – who happens to be an elf, which means he looks a whole lot like a garden gnome – would like to take things to the next level, although Dawn has her eye on much better looking guys than Sunny.

Advised by Marianne’s ex Roland (Palladio) to get himself a love potion from the Sugar Plum Fairy (Chenoweth) under the pretense of winning Dawn’s love for Sunny but in reality so he can liberally douse Marianne with the potion and get her back to the altar so that he can win the kingdom he wants to rule. However, Sunny’s success provokes the Bog King (Cumming), who has a vendetta against love but turns out to be a sweet guy despite the Jewish insect mom (Rudolph). Will true love triumph or will Roland’s plans to win the fairy kingdom end up destroying it?

The filmmakers, in a particularly Baz Luhrmann moment, decided to pepper the soundtrack with pop songs from across the various decades of rock music (the music supervisor from this film also worked on Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge) which ends up making this a cross between an excruciating night at the karaoke bar and a particularly bad episode of Glee. While some of the songs are punchy and/or performed adequately, the bulk of them seem to be thrown in there without regard for whether they fit in with the movie’s plot or atmosphere. While Wood, Chenoweth and Cumming have fine voices, the soundtrack is essentially a hot mess.

The animation is something I’m kind of torn on. The backgrounds are extremely detailed and chock full of interesting eye candy which normally isn’t a bad thing, but scene after scene of overwhelming imagery makes you want to shut down, or at least it did me. There was literally too much going on but at least it provided someplace to look other than at the characters who have that creepy rubber-faced style that made motion capture films so unpopular. At the end of the day the characters look like they sprang from a video game circa 2003.

None of the characters are given much depth and there isn’t much reason to root for anyone. “But this movie isn’t intended for adults,” you might say. “This is meant to appeal to a much younger audience.” You’d be correct in pointing that out, but appealing to children doesn’t have to mean pandering to their lowest instincts. Kids aren’t cretins; they can be very smart and yes, they actually have standards, probably higher than most adults when it comes to animation. After all, they see a ton of it, more than we do since they tune in to Nickelodeon, Disney and the Cartoon Network more regularly than we do.

I can’t honestly and in good conscience recommend this for anybody. I wish I could – I would love to see Lucas hit one out of the ballpark, something he hasn’t done in several decades – but this film is just so terribly made that it gets the absolute bottom of my normal rating scale; the dreaded Zero. Please save yourself the chore of asking for your money back after walking out halfway through by spending it on a different film in the first place – the lovely Paddington comes to mind.

REASONS TO GO: Not a one.
REASONS TO STAY: Poor animation. American Idol-like singing that sometimes approaches drunken karaoke levels. Several steps backwards in animated feature quality.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly scary images that may upset wee tots.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sisters Marianne and Dawn were originally supposed to have long brown hair but in order to save on animation costs, they were given short hair instead with only Marianne retaining brown hair to differentiate her and Dawn’s hair style.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Epic
FINAL RATING: 0/10
NEXT: Black Sea

Handsome Harry


Handsome Harry

Steve Buscemi wishes he could be as Handsome as Harry.

(2009) Mystery (Paladin) Jamey Sheridan, Steve Buscemi, Maryann Mayberry, Aidan Quinn, John Savage, Campbell Scott, Titus Welliver, Karen Young, Jayne Atkinson, Rutanya Alda, Bill Sage, Emily Donahoe, Asher Grodman, Andrew Dolan. Directed by Bette Gordon

 

That which we do in our past often doesn’t remain there. There are things that we do that can haunt us or influence us from the moment it happens all the way until this very moment and all the way to the future. Reconciling ourselves with those events sometimes is the only way to find peace.

Harry Sweeney (Sheridan) is, as the title proclaims, a good looking man who has gone gracefully into middle age. He’s one of those charming Irish guys who strides into a bar and everybody knows him. The ladies adore him and the men want to be like him.

Harry’s son (Grodman) is distinctly different in that sense. He and his father have a relationship that is strained to put it mildly, although why it is so is never really explained. Perhaps it’s just the way of fathers and their grown sons. Harry has been a mechanic most of his life, ever since he got back from Vietnam and the Navy in which he served.

When he gets a call from his Navy buddy Thomas Kelly (Buscemi) to let Harry know he needs to talk to him, Harry is a bit reluctant – he has ambivalent feelings about his military years. However when Kelly tells him that he’s on his deathbed and won’t be around much longer, Harry knows he has to go.

Kelly reminds him of an incident in the Navy in which five men, including Kelly and Harry, beat up a sixth and maimed him. Kelly wants to find the maimed man and apologize. At first Harry doesn’t want to do it; he would much rather say his farewells to Kelly and move on but when Kelly passes away, Harry knows the right thing to do is to find the victim of their attack and try to make amends.

To do so, he first needs to visit the other men involved in the beating and not all of them want to be reminded of it. There’s Peter Rheems (Savage), a wealthy blowhard who’s become an abusive husband to Judy (Mayberry), who takes quite a liking to Harry. There’s Professor Porter (Quinn), who pretends not to know Harry or have been in the Navy. There’s Gebhardt (Welliver), another wealthy man who has a love for golf but not so much for Harry.  All of this will lead to Harry’s face-to-face with David Kagan (Scott), whose potential career as a concert pianist was ruined and whose life was forever changed by the attack on him.

Gordon has directed a couple of indie films over the past 15 years – you wouldn’t exactly call her prolific – but this certainly has the look and feel of an assured hand on the tiller. The movie is on the uneven side but the good does outnumber the bad pretty much.

Let’s start with Sheridan. He can be very charismatic (as he was in “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” and in the TV mini-series of Stephen King’s The Stand in which he played Randall Flagg), and while he mostly does television and mostly supporting roles, he shows the ability to carry a movie here. He has that easy charm that translates well to the screen.

The supporting cast is strong. Buscemi, Savage, Quinn and Scott are all capable actors who rarely give poor performances and the quartet of them don’t disappoint here. Buscemi in particular has become a regular on the indie circuit, although his critically acclaimed and Golden Globe-winning performance on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” might bring him some meatier roles in mainstream films.

The writing is a bit uneven. Harry’s character doesn’t always act according to his own nature, going from pacifist in one scene to brawler in the next (and no, I’m not talking about the flashbacks either). There is also a feeling that the malaise that hangs over Harry’s life was hanging over the film as well; there are times it lacks energy.

Still, most films that depict middle aged regret in men show the men to be down and out losers who have drank, drugged or otherwise messed up their lives in almost incalculable ways and require some kind of redemption. Here you don’t get that sense; Harry is not after redemption so much as forgiveness, and the way that it is given is actually one of the film’s highlights.

Gordon never allows Harry to be completely forgiven – after all, the act that was committed by all five men was heinous and there need to be consequences for that and those consequences appear in very subtle ways. There is a lot to like here but there is also a lot that doesn’t quite work and so the recommendation is a mild one I’m afraid.

WHY RENT THIS: Middle aged regret is rarely portrayed as well as it is here. Sheridan does a great job. Terrific supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The writing can be uneven; certain changes in Harry’s behavior take place that seem a mite extreme.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words sprinkled here and there, as well as a bit of sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Handsome Harry premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 25, 2009.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13,500 on a $1M production budget; undoubtedly this lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: The Innkeepers

Cedar Rapids


Cedar Rapids

John C. Reilly, Ed Helms and Isiah Whitlock Jr. carry a precious cargo - Anne Heche.

(2011) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Sigourney Weaver, Anne Heche, Stephen Root, Kurtwood Smith, Alia Shawkat, Rob Corddry, Mike O’Malley, Seth Morris, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Thomas Lennon, Mike Birbiglia. Directed by Miguel Arteta

There is something disarming about the Midwestern version of naiveté. Hollywood, ever the sophisticate, tends to ridicule these sorts of people. I’ve found some of these people to be the salt of the earth and well worth more respect than Hollywood seems to give them.

Tim Lippe (Helms) is an insurance agent in Brown Valley, Wisconsin. He is in his mid-30s but he hasn’t had a lot of life experience. He is having an affair with his first grade teacher Macy Vanderhei (Weaver). He thinks he is living the dream; being an insurance agent is an opportunity to help people when they need it the most. Remember what I said about naiveté?

When Roger Lemke (Lennon), the agency’s most successful agent dies abruptly, Bill Krogstad (Root), the boss of BrownStar Insurance, is forced to send Tim to the regional insurance conference in Cedar Rapids where Roger had won three straight Two Diamonds Awards, the most prestigious award in the industry and as Bill darkly tells Tim, he needs to win again to keep the company afloat.

In Cedar Rapids (which Tim arrives at taking his first plane ride ever), Tim is set to room with Ronald Wilkes (Whitlock), the first African-American man he’s probably ever seen but perhaps the whitest black man ever. Also in the hotel room is Dean Ziegler (Reilly), an insurance agent who really knows how to live it up; drunken debauchery is Dean’s middle name and he is the one person at the conference that Tim was warned to stay away from.

Also part of the group is Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Heche), a married mother of two who uses the convention as an opportunity to cut loose and looks at Tim as her ticket to ecstasy. There is also Bree (Shawkat), a hooker working the convention whom Tim assumes is just a very friendly person.

Tim is set to make a presentation to the regional chairman Orin Helgesson (Smith), whose Christian values are the centerpiece of the Two Diamonds award. However, Tim has fallen in with Dean who has introduced Tim to the wonders of cocktails and crashing Lesbian weddings (which are legal in Iowa by the way). Tim is not equipped to handle the debaucheries of the big city that is Cedar Rapids; corruption, Iowa-style.

Of course, there is a bit of irony here. Okay, a lot of irony. Most people would never think of Cedar Rapids as a den of iniquity but I suppose it’s a matter of perspective; someone who’s never ventured from a small Midwestern town might see it that way. Wait’ll they get a load of Vegas.

Ed Helms has proven himself a great second banana not only in “The Office” but also in the Hangover movies. He hasn’t been given the opportunity to shoulder the load in a movie until this one, but he does so admirably. He plays the character irony-free, giving him genuine joy at the simple things like an atrium pool, the smell of chlorine, key cards and an extra bag of honey-roasted peanuts on the plane. Super awesome!

Reilly might just be the best second banana in the business. The reason for that is that he has the good sense to allow the leads to do what they’re best at and play the foil to them. He’s done that with Will Ferrell and he does it here with Helms. Still, Reilly manages to craft a memorable character of his own, one who might seem to be the absolute devil to a man like Tim but turns out to be as loyal a friend as you can ask for. Both Whitlock and Heche give solid performances, with Heche’s being particularly poignant and Whitlock’s more comedic.

I enjoyed the atmosphere Arteta weaves here, the world he creates. It’s a simpler place in a lot of ways  and to be honest, I kind of like that. Towards the end it gets kind of dark as Tim discovers harder drugs and so forth and that isn’t as funny in my view as the first part of the movie as we meet Tim – he seems to go outside the parameters he sets for himself and while I know that does happen in real life, it feels a little false here.

The humor works most of the time however – in fact, far more often than most comedies. This is one of those movies that got a little bit overlooked during its release – it went out in limited release and only had a few screens in some places and none at all in others. It is however worth seeking out, particularly if you’re into “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation” or “Modern Family” – which isn’t entirely a bad thing.

WHY RENT THIS: Hysterically funny in places. Helms proves himself to be an able comic lead.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie plumbs darker waters towards the end. Sometimes a little too over-the-top for what is billed as a light comedy.

FAMILY VALUES: The language can be pretty foul and there’s a good deal of sexual content, along with some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whitlock references the HBO series “The Wire,” which he was a cast member in – although not as Omar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a gag reel and a bit on Mike O’Malley’s “urban clogging” bit, as well as a fake commercial for the insurance agency that Tim Lippe works at.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.9 on an unreported production budget; the movie broke even at best.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Saint John of Las Vegas