In Miguel Arteta's new comedy CEDAR RAPIDS, to call insurance agent Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), "naïve" is a gross understatement. He's never left his small hometown. He's never stayed at a hotel. And he's never experienced anything like Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Sent to represent his company at the annual insurance convention, Tim is soon distracted by three convention veterans (John C. Reilly, Anne Heche and Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) who will show him the ropes and push his boundaries. For a guy who plays everything by the book, this convention will be anything but conventional.
Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is finally ready to go out into the world . . . but is the world ready for him? Miguel Arteta's disarming new spin on the heartland comedy starts with a small-town insurance agent who after 34 years in tiny Brown Valley, Wisconsin is let loose into the freewheeling, hothouse atmosphere of the annual Cedar Rapids insurance convention. Now, Tim's unassuming naiveté is about to lead him into one complicated situation after the next. These events result in unlikely friendships as he faces all the things he fears, from sex, lies and temptation . . . to the unexpected chance to become the stand-up man he's always wanted to be.
Unfolding over one tumultuous, life-altering weekend in a Midwestern town, the making of CEDAR RAPIDS was not unlike a convention itself - bringing together some of contemporary film's sharpest and freshest comic talents to forge a tale as rife with heart and humility as outright humor.
At the helm, director Miguel Arteta, whose indie comedy credits (STAR MAPS, CHUCK AND BUCK, THE GOOD GIRL and YOUTH IN REVOLT) have been met with critical success; the team at Ad Hominem Enterprises, led by Alexander Payne, whose biting yet moving slice-of-American-life comedies including ELECTION, ABOUT SCHMIDT and SIDEWAYS, have made him one of the most distinctive voices in film; and star and executive producer Ed Helms, whose empathetic brand of humor has won over audiences in the movie blockbuster THE HANGOVER and the television hit "The Office."
Joining in the fun is an accomplished cast including Golden Globe® winner Sigourney Weaver as Tim Lippe's former 7th-grade teacher turned girlfriend; Anne Heche as the seductive businesswoman who gives Tim his first taste of grown-up temptation; and the duo of Academy Award® nominee (for CHICAGO) John C. Reilly and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. as Tim's Cedar Rapids roommates, who introduce him to the pleasures and perils of male bonding.
Says Arteta, "CEDAR RAPIDS is a kind of coming-of-age comedy - except it's about a grown man. I think the surprise of the story is how relatable Tim Lippe becomes. You wouldn't think right off the bat that a sheltered Wisconsin insurance salesman could be so compelling, but there's something wonderfully funny and universal about the way he comes out of his shell and takes on the world without losing his moral compass."
ENTERING CEDAR RAPIDS
When Wisconsin native Phil Johnston began writing a comedy about a Midwestern man who has never left his hometown and is suddenly thrust into the chaos of the world, he had one actor in mind for the part: Ed Helms. Helms, who emerged as a master of awkward comedy in the role of a bachelor facing the consequences of a terrible bender in the runaway hit THE HANGOVER, seemed almost born to play a man whose innocence is both his funniest flaw and his most astonishing asset.
Helms fell in love with Johnston's concept and with the unique character he'd come up with: Tim Lippe (as in "don't get lippy with me"). A sheltered and innocent Tim is unleashed for the first time in what for him is the overwhelmingly big city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Home of the annual insurance ASMI convention with the quest to bring home the coveted Two Diamonds prize for his company, Tim is thrust into an ultra competitive world. With his eyes on the prize, the events turn into the craziest and most important adventure of his life. "As soon as I began meeting with Phil, CEDAR RAPIDS became a very personal project, very near and dear to me," explains Helms.
Helms committed fully to the project long before the backing for the film was even a glimmer in the producers' eyes. He and screenwriter Johnston collaborated closely, developing early drafts of the script and deepening the character, as Helms became increasingly excited about tackling the role. He was thrilled to play a man who has absolutely zero pretensions, and even fewer clues as to how to cheat, lie and do the typical, yet clearly outrageous, things it can take to get ahead.
"What I really love about Tim Lippe is that the man doesn't have a drop of cynicism," comments Helms. "I think cynicism comes with worldliness and Tim starts out as the polar opposite of worldly. He's never been on a plane, he's never even checked into a hotel or heard of a credit card imprint. Yet, he approaches every situation, no matter how shocking and absurd to him, with hope and optimism, which is an exciting challenge as an actor."
He goes on, "The most important thing to Phil and to me and as soon as he joined us, Miguel Arteta, was that CEDAR RAPIDS not become a broad comedy. It could easily have been done that way, but what we all wanted most of all is to make these people feel very real. These characters are funny and charming in their flaws, but hopefully, you believe in them. Phil wrote a wonderful, ingenious script that made me really proud to be a part of it."
As a huge fan of Alexander Payne's films and the unabashedly human and distinctly Midwestern comic sensibility that's woven through each of them, Helms sought out the filmmaker's Ad Hominem Enterprises, where Payne is partnered with Jim Burke and Jim Taylor, as a potential home for CEDAR RAPIDS.
Burke was instantly taken with the story. "It was laugh-out loud funny and it was also the kind of movie we like to do - human movies that are all about the characters," he says.
Payne was also enchanted by the witty concept, but what made him passionate about it was seeing Ed Helms in THE HANGOVER and realizing he could make Tim Lippe's dilemmas and disasters feel as real as they are hilariously different from the norm. "I had no idea that Ed was such a gifted comedic actor," says Payne. "Sure, I loved him from 'The Daily Show' and all that. But then I saw THE HANGOVER and it really showed off his comic abilities. The way Ed approached Tim Lippe reminds me of a 21st Century version of Harold Lloyd; the innocent who's trying to get ahead and maybe get the girl, but keeps slipping up. You really, really want to root for him."
With the lead role set, the next big task was finding a director who could navigate the razor's edge of the story's distinctly folksy but never mocking comic tone. "This was absolutely key," says Payne. "The script was extremely clever in its construction but we knew it was going to be a bit of a high wire act to keep it feeling real and not going too far. We needed a director who could bring an undercurrent of humanity to it," he says, "who could elevate the humor, bring out the heart, and then twist it into something we haven't seen before."
That director turned out to be Miguel Arteta, who has become renowned for a love of quirky and contemporary characters that set his films apart. Burke says of Arteta, "After a lot of searching, it was clear that Miguel was the perfect person for this job. It was important to us that the movie be very funny but it was equally important to us that the characters be treated with respect and affection, and Miguel is a guy who can do that. He's funny but he cares deeply about people, and on top of that, he's an awesome filmmaker who directs with authority and precision."
For his part, Arteta was thrilled to team up with Ad Hominem and quickly developed his own personal vision for the film, "The inspiration for CEDAR RAPIDS was in many ways the tone of Alexander Payne's Midwestern-based comedies," the director explains. "But the bend for me was that it's about a man who is discovering the world as a full-grown adult. Since I came to the U.S. from another country, I really relate to this kind of fish-out-of-water story. That feeling of being a stranger in a strange land is something I poured into this."
Arteta goes on, "My strategy for CEDAR RAPIDS is that the story should be painful for the characters yet funny for us. It's a very delicate thing to make a comedy that is not based solely on broad jokes. You have to get the audience involved emotionally at every beat while also giving them something to laugh at, and that's what we tried to do."
"At the heart of it all," says Arteta, "is Tim Lippe's willingness to keep trying new things that unnerve and sometimes upend him, all while trying to hang on to who he is at his core. Ultimately, this might be both the best weekend of Tim Lippe's life and the worst, but he's coming to terms with something we all have to confront: how to be yourself any place you go."
CEDAR RAPID'S CONVENTIONEERS
The comedy of CEDAR RAPIDS lies in the hearts of its characters, who have each come to the annual ASMI insurance convention in Iowa with their own hopes, ambitions and desires for the weekend. No one is as shocked and awed by the behind-the-scenes life of the convention as Tim Lippe who, having never before left rural Wisconsin, knows absolutely nothing of the flirting, partying, back-stabbing, friend-making and moral dangers that seem to be so commonplace at such affairs. Read more
CREATING CEDAR RAPIDS
Most of the action in CEDAR RAPIDS revolves around the Royal Cedar Suites hotel, the scene of Tim Lippe's initiation into the mind-blowing realities of insurance conventions over one unforgettable weekend. Since Tim's dazed and confused reactions to his new environs are so central to the comedy, creating those environs to a T was an absolute essential for Miguel Arteta. To do this, the director recruited an artistic team that includes his long-time director of photography Chuy Chavez, along with production designer Doug Meerdink and costume designer Hope Hanafin. Read more
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
MIGUEL ARTETA (Directed By) is a Puerto Rican filmmaker living in Los Angeles since 1990. His films include STAR MAPS, CHUCK & BUCK, THE GOOD GIRL, YOUTH IN REVOLT. His TV work includes "Freaks And Geeks," "Six Feet Under," "The Office" and the new upcoming HBO series "Enlightened," starring Laura Dern and Luke Wilson. Arteta is an alumnus of the Wesleyan University Film Program and the Sundance Screenwriters Lab.
PHIL JOHNSTON (Written By) has numerous projects in development, including the upcoming DreamWorks comedy, REPLY ALL, on which he serves as writer and executive producer and a Disney animated feature slated for release in 2013. He wrote and is attached to direct another comedy, JEREMY ORM IS A PERVERT, which is being produced by Anonymous Content.
Johnston worked as a broadcast journalist for eight years, earning three Emmy Awards for his work, before becoming a filmmaker. He holds a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an M.F.A. in film from Columbia University. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter and their transsexual cat, Wayne.
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