Sunday, September 25, 2011

Moneyball - 2011

"Moneyball" - 2011
Dir. by Bennett Miller - 2 hrs. 13 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I had to go back and check (because I wouldn't want to lie about something like this), but "Moneyball" is easily the best film I've seen from this year.  And it's not even very close, at this point.  There are a couple of ways to encapsulate this movie that would make it sounds either dull (how advanced statistical analysis gained a foothold in professional baseball) or a paint-by-numbers genre exercise (an under-achieving former major-leaguer assembles a rag-tag batch of misfit players to make a run at a championship), but that doesn't accurately portray what's here.

This film is based on a book of the same name, authored by Michael Lewis, which focuses on the 2002 Oakland A's season.  Lest you think this is just a baseball movie, most of the film occurs off-field and behind the scenes.  In professional sports (all of them, not just baseball), there's a sort of class warfare between the big-market teams (think the Yankees or the Lakers) who can afford to pay whatever they feel like paying for talent, and small-market teams, who have to make do with significantly lower amounts of revenue (based partly on the discrepancy in revenues for things like television deals and merchandise sales).  As a result, teams like the Yankees are constant contenders, able to avoid the pitfalls of "rebuilding" (a dirty word to any team's fans) by simply buying top talent at top dollar.

In 2001, the A's overachieved, making the playoffs, and paid for it by having their top free agents wooed away by big market teams in the off-season.  General Manager Billy Beane (the aforementioned under-achieving former pro, played by Brad Pitt) is faced with the task of having to replace top-tier talent, but not having the resources to do so.  The A's owner will not budge on the payroll issue, and that's that.  During a routine bargaining session with another team, Beane has a deal thwarted by a whisper.  It turns out that the whisperer is Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who is an economics graduate from Yale.  Brand (a pseudonym - it's based on a real person who didn't want to be involved in the movie), in a secretive meeting with Beane in a parking garage, explains his view that many baseball players are valued incorrectly due to things like star power or physical presence, and mired in an ineffective means of scouting.  Instead, using a system pioneered by Bill James called Sabermetrics (a form of advanced statistical analysis, abhorred by pretty much all of baseball, which is hammered home in the form of snippets of sports talk radio dialogue that runs as a form of commentary through the film), it's possible to do the impossible: to assemble a team of "misfit toys," undervalued (for whatever reason, including walking funny) and lowly paid players that could do certain things well enough to compete with the big market teams.

Having explained all of that, it's not entirely what "Moneyball" is about.  In the largest sense, this is a film about what it's like to convince a tradition-bound business to try to approach things from a new angle.  Most are completely unwilling to even listen, and virtually everyone is hostile (from the scouts that Beane is usurping, to the constant chatter of talk radio dj's who can't figure out what Beane is trying to do, even down to the A's manager Art Howe (played here by Philip Seymour Hoffman)).  Perhaps the hostility is best summed up by a scene between Howe and Beane, where Howe refuses to play a couple of the players that Beane has designed the players around.  Howe tells Beane that he has to run the team in a manner that he can explain when he's interviewing for a new job next season.  Even if that meant failure, Howe was not willing to stick his neck out to try Beane's method.

I can't think of one thing about this movie that didn't click for me.  Pitt and Jonah Hill work together very, very well, their sort of uneasy friendship leads to a number of laugh-out-loud scenes.  The character of Billy Beane is humanized deeply - the failed marriage, his love for his daughter is clear, and the piece-by-piece explanation of how his own playing career feels like weights being added to his burden as the movie plays out.  It reaches a climax during the "Streak" portion of the film: even Beane's successes can feel like failures to him. The direction was also fantastic - there are a number of baseball scenes where the sound drops out into absolute silence, a familiar feeling for those who are in absolute focus.  And for baseball fans, it helps that they got the details right: actual jerseys, real stadiums, etc.  Everything just works.

Obviously, something important happened during the season, otherwise no one would have bothered writing a book (or made a movie about it), but it's something that's best experienced on your own ride.  This is a tight movie, and the run-time flew by.  It just works, every little bit.  It's got the right amount of levity, it's dramatic, it's got enough sports for the guys and enough relationship stuff (and Brad Pitt) for the ladies.  There's not much more to say than that.  "Moneyball" is a damned fine film.

4.5 / 5 - Theatre

Friday, September 23, 2011

Classic Albums: Pink Floyd - the Making of "The Dark Side of the Moon" - 2003

Dir. by Matthew Longfellow - 49 minutes

Part One

by Clayton Hollifield

I'm not the biggest Pink Floyd fan out there, but I don't mind listening to them every now and then.  So, coming from that perspective, there's not a ton here that would qualify as "must-see."  It's not bad, I certainly do enjoy watching music documentaries, and it's always interesting to watch musicians performing and dissecting their work.  However, this neither veers towards "Behind the Music" territory (any troubles that the band members may have had with one another is either ignored or referred to obliquely), nor does it really get heavily into the recording sessions.

This documentary consists of interviews with some of the band members, and relevant on-lookers (like Rolling Stone editor David Fricke and producer Alan Parsons).  As far as archival footage, there isn't much.  There are clips from a period live performance, and pretty much everything else is photographs with narration.  Particularly in a "making-of" documentary, it's helpful to have a rare or noteworthy piece of footage to use as a hook, but aside from a snippet of the demo version of "Money," I didn't notice anything that would qualify.  Another note - none of the people interviewed are ever on-screen at the same time.  It would have been much more interesting to see the band members discussing the album while whatever interpersonal dynamic exists plays out, instead we have reserved people calmly discussing things from their respective caves (several of the interviews are conducted over a mixing board in recording studios).

This documentary (the title is far too long to keep typing out, forgive my repetition) assumes a basic familiarity with the material (which is fair, considering the importance and popularity of the album), but also commits the fatal flaw of never going through a full version of any of the songs.  I can't stress enough how frustrating that is, it's like being forced to listen to a Girl Talk version of "Dark Side of the Moon" when all you really want to do is relax in whatever manner you're accustomed to, slip on some headphones, and dive into the album itself.

So, I'll end on some positives.  The whole time I was watching the movie, I really just couldn't wait to listen to "Dark Side" again.  It was interesting, if not definitive.  And I like to believe that Alan Parsons likes to get stoned, put on his frilly shirt, and go into the studio to listen to albums, separating the channels on a whim (as it appears he does here).  But there is one moment in the film that made it worthwhile.  While the story veers towards the importance and popularity of the album, David Gilmour wishes that he could have the experience of putting on "The Dark Side of the Moon" and listening to it for the first time with fresh ears.  It's an interesting take, as the band members are the only people who really can't ever have that eye-opening experience.  That's the cost of making a masterpiece, I guess.

3 / 5 - NF Streaming

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Bad Teacher - 2011

"Bad Teacher" - 2011
Dir. by Jake Kasdan - 1 hr. 32 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There's a fundamental problem with a comedy when all of the funniest scenes don't have the star in them.  That's not to say that Cameron Diaz doesn't have some funny scenes, but she kind of gets lapped by her co-stars here.  The timing for "Bad Teacher" could hardly be better, following hot on the success of the female-led, raunchy "Bridesmaids."  But this movie just isn't in the same ballpark.

The plot is straightforward.  A gold-digging ho (Diaz, playing Elizabeth Halsey) has her dream marriage fall apart (meaning one that is primarily for money), along with her dreams of leaving the teaching profession behind.  She begrudgingly returns to teaching, hoping to land another golden calf.  Fortunately, Scott Delacourte (Justin Timberlake) shows up as a substitute teacher; he's from a family that makes luxury watches.  Elizabeth gets it into her head that in order to land Scott, she's going to need some anatomical enhancements, but on a teacher's salary they're hard to come by.  And while she's got her eyes on Scott, the gym teacher (Jason Segel) is making a play for her.  And all along the way, she's completely indifferent to her students - doing nothing but showing movies for weeks on end, instead preferring to engage in a game of one-upsmanship for the affections of Scott with another teacher, Amy Squirrel (played with a unhinged candy-coated nastiness by Lucy Punch).  And she smokes a lot of pot and drinks a ton, too.

I don't know whether to lay the blame for general unfunniness at the feet of Cameron Diaz, or at the writers'.  There's certainly an issue with Diaz' performance; while the character's behavior is unquestionably bad, there's a sort of awareness lurking that makes it feel more calculated than natural.  That's a problem, it's one thing to enjoy this sort of thing when the character makes the choices she does out of a compulsion or because she just doesn't know better.  Instead, it feels like she's aware of what the right choice is, and chooses over and over again to be nasty or selfish.  An easy comparison movie is "Bad Santa," where Billy Bob Thornton really inhabits his character as a nasty piece of business, but it feels like a person behaving naturally (if comedically and poorly).  Here, it's like a singer not quite hitting the note.  Cameron, you're a little pitchy, dawg!

At the same time, the character as it's written is flawed, too.  While Diaz is beautiful, she's nearly forty years old, playing a character that's written as a first year teacher.  Much like Will Ferrell needing to stop playing athletes due to diminishing believability, Diaz is at least a decade too old to play this role using youthful naivety as the excuse for her behavior.  The writing never gives any explanation as to how the character came to be the person she is, which is fine when the character is supposed to be an early twenty-something.  But, if you're going to cast a star who doesn't fit into that slot, you need to adapt the story a bit.  Forty year-olds don't exist without some sense of history, they don't pop out of nowhere.  Even in a raunchy, check your brains at the door comedy, it's a failure at some stage (whether it be writing or editing such explanations out).  So, while Diaz's performance was a little tone deaf, the writing didn't give her what she needed to make the character work.

What does work here?  Justin Timberlake is pretty funny with his ridiculous earnestness, and Jason Segel's gym teacher is really good, especially when goading Timberlake's character.  Lucy Punch is really great - her manic, super-"nice" character works really well as a foil to Cameron Diaz's cynical character.  Pretty much all of the smaller roles are knocked out of the park.  But when you can't find a way to root for the main character (because it just doesn't quite click, due to the aforementioned issues), it's a nice side dish in an otherwise terrible meal.

Man, I wanted this to be a funny movie, but it wasn't even close.  At least Diaz looked really good in the car wash scene...

1.5 / 5 - Theatre

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Land of Doom - 1986

"Land of Doom" - 1986
Dir. by Peter Maris - 1 hr. 27 min.

Title Sequence (I guess even YouTube has it's limits)

by Clayton Hollifield

If you ever wondered what would happen if you jammed "The Road Warrior," an educational film against rape, and "Return of the Jedi" together, and then filmed the resulting script on a budget of zero dollars, here's the answer.  And don't be fooled by that "unrated" status either.  Unless you get off on swearing or a cast costumed at a leather sex shop clearance sale, there's not much to warrant that rating here.  No, we're in no-budget, blockbuster knock-off film hell, and we're in it together.

To make an hour-and-a-half story short, some sort of worldwide war has thrown the world into chaos.  Everyone rides custom motorcycles and dresses like Demolition, and spends their time raping and looting.  In the midst of this hellscape, a capital-s Survivor named Harmony (Deborah Rennard) comes across an injured man, Anderson (Garrick Dowhen).  She's skeptical, but they end up travelling together, largely on the promise of a utopia that he doesn't quite know where it is, but swears he can find.  As it turns out, Anderson was booted from the Raiders (the bad guys who run things, not the football team, although it holds up as an NFL analogy as well) for trying to make them less rapey and looty, which means that they eventually get caught and have to bust out of the Raiders' stronghold.  This is where the Star Wars nonsense comes in: Anderson and Harmony succeed based on help from some short, hooded figures from the desert (that would be Jawas, if my memory serves).

So you've got a film that roughly (very roughly) approximates the look of the two highly successful "Mad Max" movies (up to that point - and I like to forget about the third one anyways), but is stripped of any of the oil industry criticism, or any point.  The action is brutal, in the sense that it's so bad that it took me out of the story repeatedly (see the scene where Harmony bashes a would-be rapist in the head with a rock.  Or perhaps I should say that in the absence of a gimmicked rock, she gently touches him in the head with a real one, and gently touches the ground near his head over and over again, with lethal results).  The actors point guns at each other, but they rarely visibly fire.  It would have improved things immeasurably if the actors had just made "pew pew" noises instead of relying on realistic sound effects.  The explosions are real, but not really connected to the action (watch the edits).

I'm of two minds about movies like this.  There's a certain amount of amusement in the fact that someone thought this was going to be awesome, and the crew made this film to the best of their abilities, and we still have the results that we have.  There's no shame in failure if it's the result of honest effort, and it certainly feels like that.  At the same time, it's just not a good movie.  And to some degree, laughing at people who actually made a (bad) movie feels shitty.  It's cringe-worthy, like watching a sporting event where someone who clearly doesn't belong on the field ends up on the field.  You know that something awful is about to happen, and the fact that no one's going to step in and stop it from happening just makes it worse.  Watching "Land of Doom" makes me part of the group of people who didn't do anything to prevent the carnage from taking place.

1 / 5 - NF Streaming

Monday, September 19, 2011

Airplane! - 1980

"Airplane!" - 1980
Dir. by Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, and David Zucker - 1 hr. 28 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

It's so unbelievably rare that a comedy ages well.  There are a million reasons for that: topical humor, changing humor tastes and trends (have you tried watching one of Jim Carrey's 90's comedies recently?), targets that lose relevance, etc.  "Airplane!" doesn't entirely dodge all of those pitfalls, but it pioneered a particular style of comedy that no one has managed to do quite as well (it's hard to imagine any of the Wayans brothers movie spoofs in a universe without this film).

The script is heavily based on 50's movie ("Zero Hour!"), and it centers around the pilots and passengers of a commercial flight getting food poisoning from the in-flight meal.  Only one man on the flight can fly a plane AND didn't have fish for dinner, Ted Striker (Robert Hays).  But he's still hung up on a mission gone wrong during the war (time-wise, which would have occurred in the mid 70's - part of the humor of the movie), and hasn't flown since.  Like many good comedies, the plot serves somewhat as an excuse to keep things moving along, and provide new backdrops for gags.  And there are so many gags in this movie!  It's the movie equivalent of Will Elder's "chicken fat" drawing style from Mad Magazine - jokes layered on top of jokes on top of jokes.  It's a relentless parade of gags for an hour and a half, and the jokes don't even end when the credits roll.

It's really difficult to get into why something like this works.  Part of it is the relentless pacing, which helps when a gag falls flat (and some of the humor is dated).  But for every bit that doesn't work now, there's a steady flow of absolute classic bits.  For the most part, the actors play things deadly serious, even when something absurd happens right in front of them.  I think that it's that level of stone-faced commitment that elevates the material (witness Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, or Peter Graves here).  And while most of the gags fly by, there are a couple of continuing gags that run through the course of the movie.  The first, an abandoned taxi-cab passenger waiting for Ted to return (while the meter runs, of course), the other is how characters who arrive at the airport handle the religious glad-handers (as it turns out, Stack's Rex Kramer is a martial arts practitioner).  Those gags, stretched out over the course of the movie, help keep "Airplane!" from coming off as a slightly more focused version of ZAZ's scattershot (yet also very funny) earlier movie, "Kentucky Fried Movie."  It's a small step in the direction of storytelling, but an important one.

For all the things that come off as anachronistic (religious zealots harassing people at the airport (!), a "Saturday Night Fever" spoof sequence, suicide as a running joke), it's just a classic comedy.  Thirty-plus years out, and it's still one of the funniest movies that I've ever seen.  It launched Leslie Nielsen's comedy career (during a college anthropology class, I remember sitting through a National Geographic film he narrated probably in the 70's, waiting for the gags to kick in), which is worth something on it's own.  I don't necessarily think it's the greatest comedy ever, but it's on the short list.

4 / 5 - NF Streaming

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Horrible Bosses - 2011

"Horrible Bosses" - 2011
Dir. by Seth Gordon - 1 hr. 38 min.

Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

This is the second film I've seen where Kevin Spacey plays a boss who terrorizes his underlings to the point of physical retribution (the first being "Swimming With Sharks").  Sure, that other movie was nearly 20 years ago, but Spacey's so good at being an overbearing boss that I look forward to another one of these kinds of movies in another 20 years or so.  I'm not sure which approach I prefer, though.

In contrast to "Swimming With Sharks," a darkly humorous indie film, "Horrible Bosses" has three buddies who all hate their bosses (and not without good reason), and end up talking themselves into killing the bosses to escape their shared, separate unbearable situations.  Kevin Spacey plays Jason Bateman's boss, who has been dangling a promotion in front of him in order to extract ridiculous hours and performance out of him.  Colin Farrell plays Jason Sudeikis' boss, a cokehead fuck-up who inherits a chemical company and a disdain for his father's ethics.  And Jennifer Aniston plays a sexually aggressive dentist who keeps harassing the freshly engaged (and also registered sex offender) Charlie Day.

The most obvious movie to compare this to is "Office Space," in the sense that it shows people who are completely unequipped to pull off major crime bumbling through the process.  And while the characters' intense frustration with their work situations is the basis of what comes, the point of the movie is showing these three guys (Bateman, Sudeikis, and Day) interacting and screwing things up.  After watching years of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," it's kind of strange watching Charlie Day try to act in a morally positive manner, but not to fear, he still has plenty of opportunities to show off his manic persona.  In an early scene, the three men break into Farrell's apartment to do some "recon," which ends up with Day and Bateman accidentally ingesting some cocaine.  Boom, Day is wound up like a watch.

Yes, killing your boss for personal gain is a dark plot, but considering that there are predecessor movies with this same idea, I can't hold that against "Horrible Bosses."  Besides, the bosses are caricatures, there's little attempt to paint them as anything more than monsters who have earned their fate.  But the biggest positive to the movie is that it's funny.  The characters work well (the bumbling criminals idea is built to last), and the smaller cameo roles are pretty good, too (especially Jamie Foxx, playing a "murder consultant" named Motherfucker Jones, which gets funnier every time it rolls off of someone's tongue").  I was actually laughing out loud, not just chuckling, and that's not too shabby.

3 / 5 - Theatre

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Grandma's Boy - 2006

"Grandma's Boy" - 2006
Dir. by Nicholaus Goossen - 1 hr. 34 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Is this a good movie?  Well, that's a complicated question.  A movie can be good without being good, in the sense that a candy bar is sometimes exactly what you need to eat.  Would a carrot be better for you?  Perhaps, but you may not always be in the mood to eat a carrot.  "Grandma's Boy" is that kind of good - it's a candy bar when you need it.

One thing I appreciated very much about "Grandma's Boy" was that, in spite of numerous opportunities to turn itself into a paint-by-numbers "save the house" movie, it never really turns in that direction.  Early on, Alex (Allan Covert) is evicted from his house because his roomie has been spending both of their rent money on exotic massages, but instead of rallying to save that situation, it leads to a couple of dicey guest stints (a memorable one involving Nick Swardson's character, a co-worker who still lives at home and sleeps in a race-car bed).  Eventually, Alex lands with his grandmother (Doris Roberts) and her two similarly-aged roommates (Shirley Jones and Shirley Knight).

With that settled, the story settles into two-pronged approach - a love story involving a consultant called in to help keep production deadlines (Alex works at a video game publisher), and the professional story about keeping those deadlines.  Since this is a light comedy, you probably already know where these storylines are going to end up, but since this is a light comedy, it's all about the ride.  And the ride is pretty damned funny.  Two of the main actors (Allan Covert and Peter Dante) show up in pretty much everything that Adam Sandler has ever done, and are clearly used to working with one another.  In smaller roles, Nick Swardson and Jonah Hill get the chance to chip in asides and one-liners, which works pretty well for them.  Kevin Nealon plays a suitably odd, new-agey boss, and the sort of villain (J.P, played by Joel David Moore) is so bizarre and socially awkward that it feels like someone like that could really exist.

Probably the best thing I can say is that, while this isn't a great movie, it's infinitely re-watchable.  I've seen this one around half a dozen times, and I still laugh all the way through it.  "Grandma's Boy" doesn't set huge goals, but it does stay entertaining all the way through, and if it's on TV, I'm definitely not changing the channel.

3 / 5 - DVD

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - 2011

"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" - 2011
Dir. by Rob Marshall - 2 hrs. 16 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Now that was a long movie.  And in a sense, I am thankful for that, as I got the maximum amount of air-conditioning value for my movie-going dollar.  But in most other senses, I'm not as thankful for that as you might imagine.  You might imagine a movie filled with people in fancy costumes (including frequent appearances of powdered wigs and frilly shirts) prancing and chewing scenery might be pretty enjoyable, and while it's not something I'd generally hold against a movie, it didn't help much in this case.

The fourth installment of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise continues the downhill slide.  While the first one was a surprise hit (and surprisingly very enjoyable), with each passing film, it's become more and more of a needle-in-haystack search for positive qualities.  Part of that might be familiarity - having seen all four, I expect to see large visuals, cool looking ships, physical humor, and chase scenes when I watch a "Pirates" movie.  Those things are here, but it felt manufactured and formula this time around instead of grand and playful.  But there's also diminishing returns with Jack Sparrow, both in terms of how much of a movie relies on his character, and just generally having now been through four full films with this character.

Here, in "On Stranger Tides," Sparrow finds himself conscripted against his will on Blackbeard's (Ian McShane, one of an army looking magnificent in eyeliner) ship, Queen Anne's Revenge.  In an attempt to buck a prophecy foretelling his death at the hands of a one-legged man, he's on a mission to find the Fountain of Youth.  Sparrow is lured onto the boat by Angelica Teach (Penelope Cruz), later revealed as Blackbeard's daughter, who has been impersonating Sparrow and recruiting a crew for the mission.  Also on the trail of the Fountain are a fleet of Spaniards led by the Spaniard (Oscar Jaenada), and an English expidition led by Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who has somehow lost his leg in a tussle with Blackbeard.  From this, it's a classic adventure plot - collect the items (in this case, a pair of silver chalices from Ponce de Leon and a mermaid's tear), and instigate a ritual.

While the plot manages to generally keep things moving in a forward motion, the characters undercut any suspense.  Nearly everything seems designed to irritate Depp's Jack Sparrow, from Angelica's deliberately poor imitation of him to Barbossa's loss of the Black Pearl, but the character itself seem incapable of actual anger or genuine emotion.  Mild irritation, perhaps, but nothing that would spur him into action.  Sparrow's flamboyant, willy-nilly behavior works as a side dish, but when you thrust that character into the prominent role of the movie and don't sufficiently answer the question of what would motivate that character, much of the conflict and action falls flat.  For the most part, everyone else's motivations are either clear or become so, but Jack Sparrow is both the star and selling point of this film.  Additionally, once you've driven your character insane (as in "At World's End," which was easily the best part of that movie), is it even possible to push Sparrow emotionally without veering into a surreal fantasy land?  If not, whatever is presented as a challenge is going to come off as unimpressive and minor compared to what's come before.

For me, the big action sequences and visuals didn't have much impact (nor were they as clever as anything in the first installment) as a result.  And what that means is that "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" felt really, really long.  That's about as damning of a comment I can make about an action-oriented film; the best ones fly along until they're over, and you can't believe you've been watching for a couple of hours.  This movie really didn't deliver on the things that made the previous ones fun: a sense of cleverness and playfulness, fun, sweeping action scenes, and Jack Sparrow kind of being a dick to everyone around him before pulling back and being more helpful.  I admit, I hope this is the end of the line for this franchise; it's been profitable and a good thing for pretty much everyone involved, but new installments have ceased to add anything interesting to the series.

1.5 / 5 - Theatre

Cedar Rapids - 2011

"Cedar Rapids" - 2011
Dir. by Miguel Arteta - 1 hr. 27 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There's something about Ed Helms that makes me want to see bad things happen to him (on screen, of course), and then watch him freak out about it.  That's the basis of both of the "Hangover" movies, and to a much lesser extent, "Cedar Rapids."  But don't worry, there are a couple of classic freak-out scenes here.

Helms plays an insurance salesman pressed into giving a presentation at an insurance confidence with little preparation, in an attempt to win an award that his colleague had won each of the last three years.  So, no pressure there.  His character, Tim Lippe, is the sort of guy who has never left his small town or flown, who offers butterscotches to a prostitute, who wants desperately to please the people around him.  During the course of the conference, the wheels fall off of pretty much everything in his life, which ends up being a positive development.

The movie itself is a sort of "welcome to the real world" story, steeped heavily in Midwestern charm and normality.  One thing that's pretty notable about "Cedar Rapids" is that the humor isn't as shocking as you might expect, given Helms' other work.  But when you set the bar for normal behavior at the unrelentingly friendly and wholesome, you don't have to go as far to get the same laughs.  When Tim has a fling with Anne Heche's character, the plot point that godliness is one of the things Tim will be judged on in the running for the Two Diamonds award, I was rooting for him even as he was throwing his opportunity for that award down the drain.  This also sets the stage for his first real freak-out, the "I'm a philanderer" scene.

Most of the humor comes out of the differences between the characters.  Tim Lippe is a straight-arrow, one who has to have his arm twisted to even have a drink.  Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) is a frequently drunk, just-as-frequently coarse walking argument for ignoring a moral code.  Ronald Wilkes (Isaih Whitlock Jr.) is Urkel grown up and gone insurance salesman, who has an affinity for the HBO program "The Wire."  Joan (Anne Heche) is, as Tim puts it, "weird."  She's married with kids, and relishes the yearly opportunity to be someone different at the conference.  They're kind of caricatures, but sharply-drawn ones, and they work very well off of one another (which can happen when you've got a bunch of really good comedic actors).  It ends up being believable that they'd end up being friends with one another.

"Cedar Rapids" is pleasant, it's funny, it's proof that you don't have to do an "R-Rated Comedy" to have an R-rating and still be funny.  It's very much an adult movie, in the sense that it's not hard for an adult to relate to the motivations of the characters (things like being stuck in a rut, having to perform at your job "or else," the unexpected joy of finding new friends as an adult) and their reactions to certain situations.  That's a neat accomplishment for any film.

3 / 5 - DVD