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

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Motherhood


Motherhood

Uma Thurman sheepishly realizes instead of transmitting her resume she sent her baby pictures instead.

(2009) Comedy (Freestyle Releasing) Uma Thurman, Anthony Edwards, Minnie Driver, Daisy Tahan, Alice Drummond, Dale Soules, Jodie Foster, Clea Lewis, Jose Constantino, Valentino Bonaccio, Aunjanue Ellis. Directed by Katherine Dieckmann

There was once an advertisement for Army recruiting that boasted “We do more before 6am than most people do all day.” Obviously the copy writer for this ad hasn’t spent much time with moms.

Perhaps there is nothing on earth more harried than a West Village mom, and that’s exactly what Eliza (Thurman) is, on both counts. She has a birthday party to plan for her six-year-old daughter Clara (Tahan) and a whole lot to deal with, including an absent-minded husband (Edwards) who’s no bleeping help, a movie being shot on her street, forcing her to move her car far enough away that lugging the party accoutrements becomes a Herculean task, trying to make it to each store to pick up said accoutrements in a limited amount of time, getting kids to play dates, classes and  quite possibly, formal dress balls (okay, the last one was a joke) and still trying to keep her sanity enough to write a 500-word essay on motherhood for a parenting magazine.

Still, she keeps up a stiff upper lip, manages to fight and make up with her best friend Sheila (Driver), make a Jodie Foster (herself) spotting, and dance with a handsome young courier (Bonaccio) who shows her a kindness. It’s all in a day’s work for a modern urban mom.

The movies often treat moms as either absolute idiots or saints married to idiots. Few movies really go to the trouble to examine the life of a mom in a realistic way. I don’t know if Dieckmann is a mom or married, but she seems to have a good handle on what it means in this age to be a mom.

Motherhood has been synonymous with sacrifice since…well, forever. Women are by nature nurturers and givers; such characters don’t necessarily make for compelling movie characters. However, Thurman gives Elyse a certain frazzled charm that is likable and interesting. Elyse is far from a saint – she flirts with the courier and is known to be insensitive from time to time. She messes up from time to time and has a truckload of self-doubt parked in her driveway.

Thurman started out her career essentially taking roles that spotlighted her tremendous physical charms, but has proven to be a pretty darn good actress as well. She really captures that frantic kind of parental stress that requires parents to give EVERYTHING to their little tykes; from the perfect birthday party to the perfect childhood.

I’ve always found that mind-boggling. No childhood is EVER EVER EVER going to be perfect and to think that you can provide your child one by taking him to Tae Kwan Do in the evening and soccer practice in the afternoons is the height of self-delusion. We think that if we involve ourselves completely in every aspect of their lives and give them everything they want somehow they’re going to turn out better adjusted than we did.

Bollocks, and unfortunately, the movie buys into that idea like a crazed shopper trying to grab the last Furby on Christmas Eve. Still, this is a pretty solid cast (although this is clearly Thurman’s movie) and while the movie has a sitcom-ish feel to it, it at least is a bit more realistic in its depiction of urban parenting than most movies are.

Being a mom is perhaps the most rewarding endeavor a human being can undertake; it is also the most complicated and frustrating. There are no manuals and no do-overs. Seeing the life of a West Village mom over the course of one day may sound boring on the surface, but there is a lot in it that touches your own experience in a big way. Like the late great Gene Siskel, I like a good slice of life movie and that’s precisely what this is.

WHY RENT THIS: An interesting view of the trials and tribulations that motherhood brings on, particularly to a city girl. Thurman makes a mighty fine MILF.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes feels more like a sit-com than a movie. Seems to buy into the idea that a good parent is one who sacrifices everything so that a kid gets everything they want.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some elements of sexuality in language and situation, as well as some suggestion of drug use. There’s also a bit of bad language (although not too bad).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie had eleven paying customers its opening weekend in London; one of the worst showings ever for a premiere.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $726,354 on an unreported production budget; the film probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Bedtime Stories

Extract


Extract

Kristen Wiig finds out Dustin Milligan has all the right moves.

(Miramax) Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, Ben Affleck, Mila Kunis, J.K. Simmons, David Koechner, Clifton Collins Jr., T.J. Miller, Beth Grant, Dustin Milligan, Gene Simmons. Directed by Mike Judge

In the classic 1999 film Office Space, writer/director Mike Judge looked at the life of a cubicle drone in a fairly sympathetic manner. Not only was it one of the most hilarious comedies of the ‘90s, it’s one of the funniest films ever. Despite a lackluster box office performance, it found cult status on home video afterwards.

Now a decade later, Judge is revisiting the work environment in Extract. Here, however, his sights are set on management, in the person of Joel (Bateman), the owner of an extract business (extracts are the flavor essences of various spices, fruits and vegetables used in cooking). His life could use some spice; his workers are mostly a dissatisfied, unmotivated lot. The one who had any enthusiasm at all, Step (Collins), had one of his testicles shorn off in a freak accident caused by one of the shrewish entitlement harpies who decided that she shouldn’t have to work as hard as the temporary worker they recently hired.

Now, Step has been enticed into suing the company by Cindy (Kunis), a self-serving con artist recently hired on as a temp and looking to make some easy money at the company’s expense. She’s convinced the slightly moronic Step that she has the hots for him. Yeah, right…as if. Now, the pending lawsuit is being pursued by rabid dog lawyer Joe Adler (Gene Simmons) just when General Mills is showing interest in buying the company, which would essentially set up Joel and his partner Brian (J.K. Simmons) up for life. Instead, the lawsuit would effectively shut the company down for good.

Things aren’t much better for Joel at home. His wife Suzie (Wiig) has essentially lost interest in sex; if he arrives home after 8pm (which he almost always does), the sweatpants will be cinched tightly around her waist ; once that occurs  any chance he might have at sex that evening gets vaporized. Sometimes, the dreaded sweatpants of abstinence might be on before 8pm. Joel complains about the situations to his good friend Dean (Affleck), a bartender by trade and pothead by avocation who can usually offer bad advice on any subject. This time, his stoner friend advises him to cheat on Suzie but Joel is unable to do it. So Dean recommends that he get Suzie to cheat instead; once she does, he won’t feel as bad about getting sex outside the marriage.

To do this, Joel hires a dimwitted mono-browed gigolo named Brad (Milligan) to seduce his wife, but the plan works too well; Brad falls in love with Suzie and starts to make regular visits. So too does Nathan (Koechner), quite possibly the most annoying neighbor in the history of neighborhoods. Joel’s world is crumbling around him and it isn’t really fair; after all, he’s just a nice guy who only wants to sell cooking extracts – and he’s really, really good at making them.

First of all, this isn’t Office Space. While there’s a similar style to both movies, they’re two completely different kettles of fish; comparing them is kind of a waste of time. Oh, certainly you’ll form an opinion and chances are that if you liked the first movie, you’ll probably like this one too. However, Office Space is far more satirical that this puppy and goes for a much broader kind of humor. Extract makes a lot more hay based on feeling and environment.

Of course, there’s Jason Bateman who is emerging as the kind of likable Everyman sort of guy that used to be the sole province of Greg Kinnear. Bateman’s so completely nice as Joel that you can’t help but root for him. The rest of the cast does pretty good as well, particularly Affleck sporting an al Quaeda beard as the well-intentioned friend. Affleck has really emerged as a reliable supporting actor; I’m curious to see how he does in a lead role again in The Town when it opens later this fall.

Kunis, who has recently been cast in action roles that don’t seem to suit her nearly as much (see Max Payne and The Book of Eli) seems way more comfortable in this comedic Jezebel role. J.K. Simmons and Clifton Collins are both reliable character actors who don’t disappoint here, and Wiig does her best MILF impression as you can see in the photo above.

Extract was overshadowed by comedies like The Hangover and Funny People when it was released last year, and like Office Space didn’t do gangbusters box office. It’s available now on DVD and cable, so do yourself a favor and check it out. Hopefully it’ll get a similar kind of cult following Office Space did on the home video market.

WHY RENT THIS: A return to form by Judge after his godawful Idiocracy. Bateman is becoming adept at the everyman role.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Humor can be pretty scattershot in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is a bit foul in places, there are some sexual and adult situations and a little bit of drug use; this probably isn’t for sensitive souls.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gary Cole, who played Bill Lumbergh in Office Space, makes a cameo in the bar scene standing between Dean and Joel.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Get Low