I remember going to see Cloverleaf alone at a cineplex in Cedar Rapids one night after a small fight with my girlfriend, and the roads encircling the mall seemed riddled with potholes as jagged and deep as time itself; Cloverleaf categorically blew. Then, once, leaving the composition class I taught at a community college in Cedar Rapids, I slipped backward on an ice-packed parking lot space. The soles of my shoes swung into the sky as the back of my noggin found cold, hard ground. Swerving back home to my sweetheart, woozy, through sleet, my little Honda Civic’s defroster petered out, and I kept having to wipe the inside of the windshield with my forearm; this repetitive, frustrating game kept me awake and alive, I believe, as I would learn that night at the hospital I’d sustained a mild concussion. I trace these dull annals of autobiography to prove I too know the seamy world of betrayed idealism that Cedar Rapids is the very devil’s banquet of. Cedar Rapids succeeds sweetly at charting Ed Helms’ jejune insurancér through similarly lubricious matrices of Midwestern hypocrisy-piety, naïveté-valor, and epiphany-pain. John C. Reilly is a forceful Falstaff, offering viewers a far more nuanced comic agitator than those to which we are used in the post-Talladega Nights C. Reilly-verse; and Anne Heche is just as lovable as the stifled wife-slut-Madonna.
Afterward over milkshakes at the Route 9 Diner, Hannah and I talked a lot about what it takes to make this template—white male idiot Z learns life lessons Y en route to inevitable triumph X—or any other template for that matter, fresh. As always, the mercuric character of poetry allows me to slap down an easy answer. A home form earns the velvety pallium of originality to the degree it imports and meets the authenticities and expectations of an alien one; the foreigner the grit the fuller the ultimate pearl. Dickinson conscripts hymns and suddenly the same old puzzles of consciousness and death seem raw again. Whitman assimilates journalism and sermon. Pound photograph, Chinese, encyclopedia. Berryman dreams. Minnis television and tantrum. Metaphor itself is the same game shrunk down to the stage of phrase. Rapids director Miguel Arteta and writer Phil Johnston squirt into the insipid womb that could’ve been any late-career Carell or Ferrell vehicle the sperm of a fledgling realism. Helms’ wacky sidekicks, like the wet noodle Isaiah Whitlock Jr plays (upsetting yet recapitulating expectation set by his marquee role, slick state senator Clay Davis on The Wire), shine as a result of good lines, and a sincere treatment by the camera. Cedar Rapids isn’t beautiful film, but gag is subservient to character just enough to make it welcome comedy. If a latent Midwesternness in all of us whispers psalms of our perceived innocence, Cedar Rapids deconstructs and amplifies that whisper. If that whisper happens to reach us through the unclean tunnel of someone’s anus, so be it; CR lights the fart on fire.