Reviews: Cedar Rapids, The Eagle

Cedar Rapids

Cedar Rapids Publicity Still
The cast of "Cedar Rapids." Courtesy Fox Searchlight.

Director: Miguel Arteta
Cast: Ed Helms, Sigourney Weaver, John C. Reilly, Alia Shawkat, Rob Corddry

It just gets worse.  Already off to a disastrous start, the 2011 junk pile grows higher with an alleged “comedy” by Puerto Rican director Miguel Arteta that is unlikely to connect with any comic book reader sporting a 70-point I.Q., but will undoubtedly be a big hit with the kind of people who thrive  on  Will Ferrell movies.  Cedar Rapids is a ribald collection of stale corporate convention jokes, hateful putdowns of women, and filthy one-liners you wouldn’t repeat at parties attended by middle-aged men wearing Chinese lampshades.  Never remotely witty, intelligent or original, it demeans even the cheapest Hollywood rom-com clichés, and in addition to being contrived and embarrassing, it’s also downright stupid in the bargain.  It comes as no surprise that they laughed in Sundance (natch), but to be honest, I confess I am too old to fall out of  my chair shrieking at the sight of John C. Reilly bending over, cacophonously passing gas, and setting off an explosion with a cigarette lighter.  These are the jokes, and they get worse as the movie drags on for 86 punishing minutes that are about as funny as a hip replacement.

The centerpiece of this fiasco is Tim Lippe (pronounced “Lippy”, as in “Dippy”), a nerdy, 40ish insurance salesman from  Brown Valley, Wisconsin, played by doughy, schmoo-shaped Ed Helms, the most boring actor on TV’s “The Office”.   When his kinky boss hangs himself in a closet nude, Tim is dispatched to an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which is played by the ugliest town in Michigan.  Tim is such a cretin he has never traveled beyond the city limits of his hometown, married, ridden on an airplane, rented a car, or consumed anything stronger than cream sherry.  For love, he has sex once a week with the school teacher who taught him when he was 12 years old.  (Don’t ask me what Sigourney Weaver is doing in this dreck; she looks younger than everyone else in the movie and could teach them all a few things about acting.)  Because of a room shortage, Tim is forced to room with an obnoxious, alcoholic motor mouth named Dean (John C. Reilly).  Noisy and always hung over, Dean talks through sermons, walks in on people while they’re sitting on the john, substitutes grabbing everyone’s genitals for handshakes, and wears out his welcome fast. Tim also falls under the influence of another agent named Joan (Anne Heche), a married slut who throws him naked into the hotel pool and then ravages him.  This is a convention for dweebs, cornier than an all-night bash in a Holiday  Inn, but before it’s over Tim has slept with Joan, fallen in love with a prostitute, skinny-dipped, snorted coke and smoked pot, entered the world of big-time debauchery, and sung an insurance song to the tune of “O Holy Night” at the hotel talent show.  (This is the kind of convention where the big entertainment event of the weekend is a scavenger hunt where the grand prize is a coupon for a Japanese restaurant in a shopping mall.  The film builds to Tim’s presentation speech to the president in which he must win the annual “two-diamond award” his firm has been awarded for two years in a row—or lose his job.  He falls flat on his face and ends up purchasing the prize with a bribe, only to confess in some sexual double-talk in front of the entire gasping convention that while the president entered him and remained deep inside him (he’s talking about integrity, but they think he means something else) he saw the light.  A changed man, he enlists all of his new friends (including the prostitute and Dean the Spook) to open a new insurance business, annihilate the competition, and open a new window to lives of new-found enlightenment.  Never have I seen a sentimental tack-on ending backfire so noisily.

The movie is a yo-yo of jarring tempos.  The set-up is longer than the payoff.  The plot is totally inconsequential. The so-called comic acting is desperately overwrought. In his first starring role in a feature film, it’s obvious that Ed Helms is hoping for a big-screen miracle that will turn him into an overnight star like his “Office” co-star, Steve Carell, in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Unfortunately, hes clumsy and charmless enough to make you wonder how he got hired in the first place.  John C. Reilly does repulsive better than anyone, but after this movie, a serious gastrointestinal exam is seriously recommended.  He eats so much scenery his medical condition is in jeopardy, the swimming pool scene with the trash can lid is so over the top you just stare at the screen in awe without cracking a smile, and for a supposedly straight character who does he vomit up so much endless dialogue about anal intercourse with other men?  Nothing jells here, including the forced insurance-convention hijinks.

This is doubly disappointing, because Miguel Arteta is a director who has made some of the most imaginative and fascinating indie-prods in recent years.  This is not one of them.  It’s hard to imagine how a director with the distinctive voice he displayed in Star Maps and Chuck and Buck could come up with anything as flat, vulgar and predictable as this.  Of course you’re only as good as your material, and neither of those films were written by Cedar Rapids’ Phil Johnston, who displays little more than a passion for raucous profanity.   I have never known a single Midwesterner over 40 who looks, sounds or talks like the cabbage heads in this movie, but Mr. Arteta obviously knows what appeals to the least sophisticated audiences with the most pocket change.  This crude aping of every hack from Judd Apatow to the Farrelly Brothers represents the worst of what is happening in film today, just as a group of insurance salesmen in discount suits symbolizes the worst kind of cornball American convention in your grimmest nightmares. There must be a reason for all this. Nobody wants to have dinner with an insurance salesman unless he’s got a double life, and I can’t envision anyone sitting through a movie this bad without a motive.

The Eagle

Channing Tatum in The Eagle
Channing Tatum in "The Eagle." Courtesy Focus Features.

Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Mark Strong, Donald Sutherland, Tahar Rahim

Ambitiously set in the second century, The Eagle is a codpiece-and-crossbow saga of relentlessly exciting battle sequences sandwiched between tedious, unconvincing chatter about testy tribes, cantankerous centurions, fiery feudal warriors, and camera-ready six-pack abs modeled by hunky pinups Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell. It isn’t going to win any awards for artistic excellence, but with two 8 x 10 glossies flexing their glutes from here to the middle of next week and an able support group including Donald Sutherland and Denis O’Hare, it’s not exactly a snore, either.

120 AD.  The Roman Empire is divided by Hadrian’s Wall.  To the south, there is Rome and the beaches.  In the far north, there is Britain, including what is now Scotland,  but Roman soldiers are not welcome there since a great Italian general named Flavius Aquila marched into England to conquer it and lost 5,000 members of the Roman Army who vanished into thin air, along with the gold eagle that symbolized their strength, valor and power.  Twenty years later, the warrior’s son Marcus (Channing Tatum), a strapping Muscle McGurk who can crack coconuts with his bare thighs, seeks the post of commander to find out what happened to the lost army, regain the eagle, and regain his family’s tarnished honor.  Stoic, ripped, and fresh from the gym with newly dyed black bangs, Marcus is honorably discharged from his legion due to severe injuries, but with the legions of Rome no longer behind him, he vows to continue his journey into sealed-off territory alone.  After a period of rest and recuperation at the home of his uncle (Donald Sutherland) he is joined in his quest by his British-born slave Esca (Jamie Bell, who has come a long way, baby, since grabbing world attention as the star of Billy Elliot). Esca hates his master, but owes him his life for saving him from the gladiators and serves him out of gratitude; Marcus is brave and fearless, but depends on his slave to guide him through the hostile territory where all things Roman are despised and only Esca can speak the language.  The film is less about these two men than the reluctant bond between them.  There are no women anywhere, and it might not have been anyone’s intention, but there are times when their long, intense looks of longing, closely shared sleeping quarters and mutual rubbing of wounded body parts take on unmistakable suggestions of homoerotic macho fantasies.  When Esca holds down his unclothed master during surgery, the innocent romantic imagery in the boy’s-book splendor of Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth on which it is based is beautifully realized.  Add innumerable hand-to-hand combats and feet stomping over severed heads, and the bloodiest filmgoer’s thirst for violence is also sated.  Once they cross over Hadrian’s wall and fall into the hands of the primitive, cannibalistic Seal People, the roles reverse and to stay alive, Marcus becomes the slave and Esca calls the shots. Finally, The Eagle becomes a New World take on the old-fashioned Hollywood western, where the white man and the savage Indian must learn to trust and love in order to survive.

Despite a leaden script by Jeremy Brock, the Scottish director Kevin  Macdonald, who scored with the historical Idi Amin drama  The Last King of Scotland, knows how to keep the pulse throbbing, the narrative focused, and the physical action churning.  I don’t know enough about the Dark  Ages to challenge the accuracy of the documentation, but the events depicted are cinematic enough to hold interest, and from the icy mists of the Scottish highlands to the punishing wilderness of  ancient Italy (played by Hungary), the visuals enthrall.  The golden eagle represents the lost and stolen power of the oppressor in much the same way that the imperial neo-Nazi flag in small extremist right-wing German villages today substitutes for outlawed swastikas.  Like Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great or Brad Pitt as Achilles, Arkansas-born Channing Tatum is not exactly an inspired choice to play a Roman warrior, but the critics who keep throwing rocks at his loin  cloth don’t seem to mind the fact that a Polish-Ukranian Jew named Kirk Douglas played Spartacus.

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