Director Miguel Arteta has the last laugh
By T. T. Stern-Enzi
In what might be the funniest scene thus far in film, Ron Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr. of later Spike Lee and “The Wire” fame), playing a nerdy Midwestern insurance salesman, bumrushes his way into a raucous house party to rescue wayward cohort Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) and intimidates surly partygoers with his impression of gunslinging gangsta Omar from “The Wire.” The moment would have been pure comic genius without Whitlock, but his presence transforms the situation into self-referential satire that never dips into broad parody. And the laugh, for those in the know, bullseyes the gut, heart and mind, all in one brilliant shot.
“You know, those references to ‘The Wire,’” Miguel Arteta explains during a recent phone interview, “were there before we cast Isiah Whitlock and we were quite shocked and surprised when we saw the audition and said, ‘There’s Senator Clay Davis (Whitlock’s character on the HBO series),’ reading these lines. In fact, we had a discussion, a pretty tough discussion about whether or not to keep those lines because it was so self-referential. Isiah just was so good that we knew we had to keep that bit in the film.”
Arteta refers to Whitlock as “the secret weapon,” which certainly makes sense in a comedy featuring the likes of Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche and Sigourney Weaver.
“When you have a cast of well-known performers and you insert someone who is a little less well-known, it brings something to the chemistry. I think the more famous people feel an excitement because they look around and say, ‘Well, he didn’t get cast because he was famous.’ He was clearly right for the part, which Isiah definitely was.”
As the director of “Chuck & Buck,” “The Good Girl” and “Youth in Revolt,” Arteta knows a thing or two about comedic secret weapons. He tends to gravitate towards eccentric characters and quirky narratives. The story of Tim Lippe, the small town insurance salesman who hops on a plane for the first time to attend a regional convention in the big city of Cedar Rapids, and falls in with Dean Ziegler (Reilly), Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Heche) and Wilkes has the hallmarks of an Arteta project. That the film is also produced by Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) only accentuates these sensibilities, although Arteta illustrates here that he is far more willing to aim below the belt for a laugh, setting him apart from the slightly more cerebral Payne.
Helms enjoys center stage in “Cedar Rapids” and while the film may not end up being the breakout that audiences look back on fondly when they survey his career, it provides a solid testament for his Everyman charm that rivals Steve Carell’s. These two performers, more than anyone else plying their wares in the comic trade, are in tune with the harmony between the jokes and the drama.
But “Cedar Rapids” also requires a steady hand at the helm (no pun intended), someone with sensibilities outside the Midwestern norm. And Arteta certainly has a handle on that perspective Middle America.
“I grew up in Puerto Rico. My father was from Peru, my mother’s Spanish and so I wasn’t from PR, everyone saw me as that Peruvian kid. I spent time in Spain, where I was the guy from Puerto Rico and when I moved to the States, I was from across the border. As an outsider, it helps me observe people’s behavior. So, I think my humor comes from being an outsider.”
Once all is said and done with the release of the film, Arteta and the outsiders of “Cedar Rapids” may find themselves squarely in the middle of a box office party in their honor.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at T.T.Stern-Enzi@daytoncitypaper.com.