It’s probably safe to say that The Office was one of the biggest network TV successes of the last decade. It lasted for 9 seasons, spawned countless imitators, and made names out of an ensemble cast of character actors. Steve Carrell, Ed Helms, John Krasinski, and Rainn Wilson especially were all able to parlay their exposure there into lead roles in feature films. Of the four of them, Steve Carell has to be seen as the most successful, however. With The 40-Year-Old Virgin he proved that he could open a film as its star, and with the movie we’ll be talking more about here, Little Miss Sunshine, he proved himself to be a versatile actor who didn’t necessarily need to do comedy. Largely based on the hype behind Carrell’s performance, that movie made close to $60 million at the box office, and then rode its buzz straight into awards season, where it walked away with two Oscars. Not bad for a tiny little indie film.
When Helms’ turn to try and make the jump to movie stardom came, it came in the form of the 2011 film Cedar Rapids. Already he had become a box office commodity thanks to the success he saw as part of the Hangover ensemble, but this one was going to be his big chance to prove that he could anchor a film as its centerpiece actor. Cedar Rapids got released in the movie wasteland known as February though, and when all was said and done, it didn’t quite make it to bringing in $8 million. That can’t really be seen as a success no matter what its production budget was. Helms hasn’t been the star of a film since, and Cedar Rapids doesn’t seem to be one of those films that’s managed to build up a cult following on home video either. Actually, I haven’t much heard anyone mention it at all.
What do they have in common?
As we already addressed, both films featured the potential next steps in the careers of actors from The Office. In addition to that though, they also share a few other connections. Both feature a ragtag group of underdogs, out on the road and out of their comfort zones, who are trying to overcome their shortcomings and neuroses in order to improve their places in the world. Both of these sets of characters seem to be trapped in hopelessly ordinary, suburban lifestyles as well. Both films also manage to juggle their comedy with a good bit of character-based drama. It’s true that Little Miss Sunshine was quite a bit more serious, at least in a surface way and in its marketing, but Cedar Rapids will sneak up on you with how much it resonates.
Why is Little Miss Sunshine overrated?
The problem with Little Miss Sunshine certainly isn’t its acting. Its ensemble cast is good to a person, and Carrell especially is able to impress with the depths of where he can go as a performer. The problem with Little Miss Sunshine is that all of the actors are working harder than they need to be, because the characters they play are paper thin. Each one is given their one trait, their one problem they need to overcome, and that becomes the single thing that defines them. They’re so broadly drawn that its hard to believe in them, and they’re so one-dimensional that it’s hard to find them interesting.
One could also make a case that the portrayal of their problems works to irresponsibly romanticize mental illness, and that’s largely because several of the characters are acting out in severe, dangerous ways, and the way they eventually resolve their issues is so simplistic and sudden that it just doesn’t work. This is a road trip story, with a family full of depressives, suicidals, and drug addicts taking a young girl to compete in a beauty pageant, and it resolves itself when each is able to escape from their problems—essentially out of nowhere—when the young girl’s off-color dance routine tickles all of their funny bones and they decide to share in a laugh on stage. It feels like the screenwriter (Michael Arndt, whose Toy Story 3 script was a big improvement) didn’t know how to wrap things up, so he just went for an easy out and let himself off the hook. For this movie to really be the sort of end product that deserved an award for writing, it needed characters that were more nuanced and less defined by their ticks, and it needed less easy answers. As is, far too much weight gets put on the shoulders of the actors to make this thing a success, and when they’re playing characters as ridiculous as a teenager who’s so mopey he hasn’t spoken a word for months and a father who’s so inconsiderate of other people’s feelings that he’d lecture a little girl about weight gain, that becomes a lot to ask of anybody.
Why is Cedar Rapids underpraised?
Cedar Rapids works really well, so well that it’s a crime that more people haven’t seen it, and most of the reason it works so well is that it gets all of the character stuff that Little Miss Sunshine got wrong right. Some of that is because Helms and his co-stars are all really talented people who elevate the material, but a lot of it is because the characters get developed on the page as well. When the film starts you think Helms’ Tim Lippe is going to just be a broad joke, a one-note caricature of the naive yokel, but by the time the film ends he’s gone through so many new experiences and had his mind broadened in so many different ways that he hardly even resembles the guy he started out as. And that goes for the side characters too. This film’s motley crew of insurance salesmen are complex figures who are allowed to make good decisions and bad decisions, and we’re shown how each success or failure changes the way they behave going forward. Not only is that good storytelling, but the level of its effectiveness points to good acting from Helms and company too. It’s not so easy to have a character go through such a huge change as Helms’ does here and have it play as being believable, and his ability to pull it off proves that he has what it takes to be a Hollywood leading man.
Helms’ triumphs as an actor and all of the effective character work shouldn’t overshadow just how good the supporting cast is and just how broadly funny Cedar Rapids is though. As if John C. Reilly going swimming while wearing just his underwear and a garbage can lid isn’t worth the price of admission alone, this movie also features a scene where he and Helms drink bloody marys together in their underwear. Alia Shawkat shows up playing a hooker who utters the immortal line, “Suck the glass dick, dude.” The Wire’s Isaiah Whitlock Jr. plays a straight-laced dork who takes pride in lame pun humor that would put even the most embarrassing things your dad has said to waitresses to shame, and then he goes on to do a hysterical impression of Michael K. Williams. Who knew he was funny? Perhaps more impressively than anything else though, Cedar Rapids is a movie that reveals that Anne Heche can actually be a warm and likable actress. Why hasn’t any other movie been able to figure that one out?
Evening the odds.
After Steve Carell left The Office, the show had to struggle a bit in order to replace him as the main character. Ultimately, it was Helms’ character who took his place as office manager, and that experiment, much like Cedar Rapids, has to be seen as a failure. Unlike Cedar Rapids, it was a creative failure and not a financial one though. Helms’ character seemed to debut a new personality on an episode-to-episode basis as the writers struggled to find a way to take his comedic persona and make it work in a featured role, and eventually they seemed to give up on the task entirely.
If they would have paid attention to the places where Cedar Rapids succeeded, they would have had a blueprint for how to make it work. The biggest assets Helms brings to a lead role are his willingness to appear totally vulnerable and his ability to sell earnestness. The secret to making audiences relate to him as a star of something is to have him play a good-natured sad sack, make us feel bad by having the world shit all over him, and then give us a reason to cheer when he finally achieves a small victory. Perhaps his inheriting of the Griswold mantle in the upcoming Vacation sequel will finally be the thing that uses him well in a featured role and gets some attention paid to it. If not, we could get to the point where he starts throwing around the idea of doing a Hangover Part IV, and that would be a good indicator we’re living in the darkest timeline.