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.
Blonde and boyish drifter Mark (Kip Pardue) washes up onto North Carolina's beaches mysteriously talking about a quest for loggerhead sea turtles. Mark befriends a local hotel manager George (Michael Kelly) who's gay. George invites Mark to stay for free. They start a romantic relationship despite Mark revealing he's HIV-positive. Middle-aged Grace (Bonnie Hunt) a little crazy pines to meet the son she gave to adoption years ago. A third story brings the other two together: a gay-hating minister (Chris Sarandon) and his homebound wife (Tess Harper) disown their gay son who ran away from home as a teenager. Loggerheads--though not brilliant--is three quality stories becoming one. Hunt disappears into her kooky dramatic role surprisingly well. She's usually the soft-faced lead in warm fuzzy comedies like Cheaper by the Dozen but strongly plays against type here. Harper relegated to indies and TV movies for the past decade is like a forgotten revelation. She conjures buried memories of her '80s roles like Tender Mercies or Crimes of the Heart. Pardue and Kelly are a formidable duo as two young men sharing an affair cautious yet intimate. They don't reveal too much to the audience too early. As a fresh-faced transient Pardue is believable as someone we don't trust entirely and as a gay character he doesn't conform to the caricature stereotypes. Kelly previously seen in 2004's Dawn of the Dead is serviceable in his conflicted role. Chris Sarandon is perfectly detestable as the rigid minister. Critics say Loggerheads lapses into misshapen periods of melodrama leaving the audience plenty of time to lose focus. Earnest lame folk music induces eye rolls. I wouldn't disagree--but the film's pacing is its heart and spirit. Director/writer Tim Kirkman has coaxed above-average performances from all his leads. The slow-moving backdrop of North Carolina lends the perfect tone of social-conservative repression like a less comedic bleak version of Desperate Housewives. Both TV's Desperate and Loggerheads coincidentally were honored at this year's L.A. Outfest.