‘Cedar Rapids’ Is Iowa Corn, But With Pop

Like Voltaire’s Condide or Lucas’ Luke Skywalker, Ed Helms embarks on the proverbial “hero’s journey” … with entertaining results

Last Updated: November 4, 2013 @ 3:58 PM

When screenwriters or, more often, directors and studio executives want to impress, they natter on with would-be eloquence and erudition about how a movie reveals “the hero’s journey.”

They namecheck figures from Greek mythology and the Bible, Voltaire’s “Candide” and, of course, Luke Skywalker and the original “Star Wars” trilogy.

The phrase, “the hero’s journey,” originates with the revered classics scholar Joseph Campbell. In his 1949 book, “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” he used it to describe the outlines of a recurring story, one which is found repeatedly across times and cultures.

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder; fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man,” wrote Campbell.

Ever since George Lucas cited Campbell as one of his major influences in writing “Star Wars,” Hollywood has been in love with the “hero’s journey” notion. It’s a one-size-fits-all definition, broad enough to encompass Jesus Christ, Buddha, Mohammed, Odysseus and, yes, Superman and Indiana Jones.

As movies become ever more high-concept and special effects-driven and are aimed at massive, global audiences, the “hero’s journey” phrase can be used to explain even such dross as “Transformers.” After all, doesn’t Shia LaBeouf make a “hero’s journey” when he ventures forth from home to battle robots and save the world?

But just because Campbell’s formula has been used and abused to justify too many stinkers doesn’t mean it isn’t useful when thinking about an individual movie.

Take “Cedar Rapids,” an endearing comedy that’s equal parts sweetness and raunch. The film sends its hero, a 30-something naïf (played by Ed Helms), on a journey from his small, isolated, rural hometown in Wisconsin to the teeming metropolis of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he finds plenty of trouble at a regional conventiona for fellow insurance salesmen.

In its own amusing way, “Cedar Rapids” manages to tick off each of the “hero’s journey” criteria on Campbell’s checklist.

Tim Lippe ventures forth to a region of supernatural wonder, which in his case includes such momentous first steps as taking a plane ride, checking into a hotel, ordering a drink (a cream sherry) and attending a convention.

He encounters fabulous forces there, in the persons of the fellow conventioneers, whom he befriends.

They include a foul-mouthed, hard-partying goofball (John C. Reilly); a button-downed bachelor with a fondness for watching HBO’s “The Wire” (Isiah Whitlock, Jr., who was himself on “The Wire”); and a cheery gal (Anne Heche) who’s married but not averse to an out-of-town quickie when at a convention.

In the same way that such earlier heartland comedies as “About Schmidt” and “Lars and the Real Girl” focused with both fondness and humor on what Hollywood too often dismisses as “flyover country,” “Cedar Rapids” finds its voice in the broad vowels of the Midwest.

Director Miguel Arteta (“The Good Girl” and “Chuck and Buck”) and star Helms (who also served as producer) skillfully manage a delicate balancing act here: Ted may be magnificently naive, but he is never stupid.

Even as our Candide-like hero finds himself in the middle of ever-wilder situations (swimming in the hotel pool after midnight, sleeping with a colleague, blissing out on drugs at a party, etc.) his innate goodness and sweetness shine through.

At the end, per Campbell, he is ready to return home and “bestow boons on his fellow man,” even if just in the form of running an honest insurance agency.

Sure, in some ways “Cedar Rapids” is Iowa corn, but it’s a tasty strain and boasts plenty of pop.