Thursday, February 10, 2011

Insurance -- but just for laughs

Cedar Rapids has John C. Reilly, Anne Heche and Ed Helms. There are laughs, too, but perhaps not as many as you might expect.
If there's a less promising setting for a comedy than a convention of midwestern insurance agents, I'm not sure what it would be. A gathering of morticians? Amazingly, director Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt) manages to pry some laughs out of a totally banal situation. At Arteta's disposal: a barrel full of gross humor, several interesting performances and a topical twist. * About that twist? It seems the insurance agents increasingly are being overtaken by a God squad mentality. John C. Reilly plays a crass agent whose boisterous behavior stands in opposition to all the faux Christian piety; Anne Heche, in what might be her best screen performance yet, portrays an agent of similar temperament. These two understand what conventions are really about: binge drinking, random sex and hard partying. * The movie centers on Tim Lippe (Ed Helms of The Hangover), a straight-shooting agent who's attending his first convention. Tim leaves home reluctantly: He's having an affair with his former seventh-grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver), and mistakenly thinks of her as his girlfriend. She's just in it for the sex. * When Tim arrives at the convention, his solidly square views are put to the test. * The movie, which also features the calming influences of Isiah Whitlock Jr. (as another agent), seems intent on affirming free-spirited raunchy behavior, friendship and loyalty, but its humor tends toward one-note expressions and it often falls face forward into piles of its own bad taste. * Somehow, though, Helms (a convincing idiot), O'Reilly and Heche keep the thing going. Too bad Cedar Rapids isn't nearly as funny or as sharp as must have been intended.
Also opening in Denver today are the Academy Award nominees for best live-action feature short films and best animated short films. Both programs offer a high degree of creativity. If I had to choose one over the other (separate admissions are being charged at Landmark's Mayan Theatre), I'd pick the live-action shorts. * But wait, then I'd miss the brilliant and funny Let's Pollute, an animated film from director Geefee Boedoe. Bodoe displays considerable wit in presenting what seems to an alternate-universe educational film, one that encourages viewers to make sure to their bit to despoil the world. We're talking satire, of course. * And I'd also miss, The Lost Thing. A lovely bit of animation from Australia, Lost Thing tells the story of a boy who finds a ... well ... lost thing, an improbable cross between a deep-sea creature and a machine. The boy tries to find the thing a home. * Among the live-action shorts, I'm partial to The Confession, a dark look at English boys on the verge of their first communions, and The Crush, a surprising Irish entry about a schoolboy's infatuation with his teacher. Wish 143, about a cancer-stricken teen-ager who'd like to have sex before he expires, is equally worthy.

Oh hell, go see both programs. A healthy dose of short films has the kind of restorative power movie fans may need to keep themselves going during a dry stretch at the movies.

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