February 07, 2011 12:46pm EST
When a dramedy gets too sentimental it quickly becomes sappy but with the right balance – and the right actors – it can work well enough to entertain on multiple levels. Alexander Payne’s Sideways is a perfect example of tonal equality; bittersweet in every sense of the word but outright hilarious when the comedy gets going. I thought the best qualities of his direction would carry over into his latest production the recent Sundance entry Cedar Rapids. While his influence as producer is identifiable (particularly in its score) director Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl) made a more conventional film than I expected to see.
Our story begins in Brown Valley Wisconsin where the dignified Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) works lives and loves his former 7th Grade teacher (a dull Sigourney Weaver). When the top dog at the insurance company he works for dies it’s up to him to represent at a do-or-die insurance convention in Cedar Rapids Iowa a bustling metropolis compared to the small town he’s never left. Once there he befriends a pair of agents (Isaiah Whitlock Jr. and John C. Reilly) cavorts with another (Anne Heche) and parties with a local prostitute (Alia Shawkat). When it comes down to business however he learns quickly that the insurance racket isn’t the noble industry he once thought it was.
Though it has some heart the film doesn’t hit the funny bone like its trailer teased. The biggest laughs don’t come organically; instead Reilly’s crass Dean Ziegler (the best part of the movie) spews them from every orifice he exposes. Most of the other jokes are flat including the bulk of Helms’. Lippe’s naivety is all too reminiscent of Andy Bernard his beloved character on The Office and though you’d think that would be a good thing it just feels stale. Heche gives the best performance of all portraying a melancholy working mother who’s both vulnerable and independent but her character doesn’t have much effect on the narrative. The most fun comes via a series of supporting roles and cameo’s from the likes of Thomas Lennon Stephen Root Rob Corddry Kurtwood Smith and Mike O’Malley but none of them have enough screen time to leave a lasting impression.
Lack of humor aside the film suffers most from trying to tackle too many topics at once. Screenwriter Phil Johnston stuffs many themes into the 87-minute feature including the growth of the man-child (an indie cliché at this point) corporate corruption and separation of church and office but no single subject is developed enough to care about. Had the filmmakers stuck to their guns and delivered an all-out comedy be it conventional or quirky Cedar Rapids would be easier to endure.
Deep in the ground behind a Jerusalem hardware store a tomb is discovered holding an ancient skeleton that bears all the markings and evidence of Jesus Christ. The Vatican sends out Jesuit Matt Guttierez (Antonio Banderas) to bury the secret (the Catholic Church would rather nobody know that Christ's body wasn't really resurrected). Matt teams up with archaeologist Sharon Golban (Olivia Williams) to investigate and winds up in the middle of a power struggle between politicians religious extremists and terrorists.
Banderas as the devout priest seems to be phoning this one in while Williams as the pragmatic scientist is solid but not terribly memorable. But together their chemistry is pretty good as a man of faith and a woman of science who both find their beliefs tested by what they've found-and by the sexual tension between them. Derek Jacobi is pure Easter ham as Father Lavelle who finds his lifelong beliefs shaken (O how they're shaken!).
Ho hum. What ultimately could've been an interesting story ends up talked over to death. Dry discussions ensue between Matt and Father Lavelle-snore. Who cares? Faith schmaith get to the action already. This might have been better had it concentrated solely on what the discovery of Christ's body could mean politically and culturally to the rest of the world. Instead the film balks jerkily between a half-hearted and predictable conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians (yeah we know they don't get along) and the individual struggles of faith by the characters who naturally end up in the middle of a terrorist scenario.