Playing the Sincerity Card in Cedar Rapids
by Alex Juhasz — Pitzer College
March 02, 2011 – 18:30
Across this blog and throughout my video-book I’ve worried about the “ironic free-fall” currently defining video on YouTube and the mediascape more generally. I’ve suggested that the hold of the fake and insincere has become so deep that even the sincerity card can no longer be played (by our president, no less!) So, imagine my surprise when earnestness is pleasantly pulled off by no less then hipster, indie smart-guy, Miguel Arteta, and an strong cast of supporting once-cynical fools (John C. Reilly, Ann Heche, Ronald Wilkes).
Just like heirloom tomatoes speak well to one too many happy meals, and crafting is a reasonable response to Walmart, it makes sense that we could only stand the pleasures of cynical unknowing for so many Offices, remixes, and Catfishes without eventually needing its reverse: earnest goodness. And this is what Ed Helms (playing Tim Lippe) produces: an affectedly unaffected look at the blessedly unaffected. The film imagines how such a man–insurance salesman, Mid-Western, milque-toast, small-town Lippe–could still exist in these callous, over-mediated, cynical viral times. A man actually under-exposed to the corruption of mediated self-knowing!
Now, we’ve seen a lot of this guy in recent movies. Childlike, prepubescent, preternaturally naive men-who-would-be-boys literally litter our screens. But these pretty-well-played-out 40-year old virgins of the Farelleys and Ferrells, Apatows and Carrells are fuel for mean-spirited (often misogynistic) fun where the men and their films always descend into puerile bad-boydom, no lesson learned. The other version of the man-boy (as played again and again by the genre which is Michael Cera and sometimes Jesse Eisenberg), isn’t as mean as it is nostalgic and Peter-Panish. I won’t grow up, I just won’t, given that the world is so mean.
But Lippe’s (and Arteta’s) unexpected movie path is towards better mandom—so unlike those sorry, naught, silly lost boys before them—and ultimately a better viewerdom. However do they pull it off?! In the insurance salesmen talent show held in the tacky hotel entertainment lounge, our intrepid cast trains us in the new ways of sincere-viewing. Lippe sings the kind of cornball “real” bad Christmas carol-cum-insurance-commercial that underwrites the logic of current cinema misanthropy: fake “bad” performance of fake “real” person cut to close-up of either a face with an utterly blank reaction (which means a cutting lashing read just below the surface), or cut to close-ups of a subtle knowing look between two horrified, snickering friends who will only too soon unleash a mocking tirade of abuse (no doubt on YouTube). But no! In Cedar Rapids that crowd, so primed to mock, hoot, or wither away in a sea of embarrassment, instead, slowly, ponderously, on uncertain feet, decide to, well, like it, and him. Then, so do we. It’s a strange and unexpected feeling (given that it has no smarmy uncertain under-core) from a contemporary movie.
In the end, while I may not believe a pre-contact man like Lippe actually exists (even in Wisconsin), I do believe that goodness and sincerity in movies can and am certain that left without representations that connect us to belief and hopes for betterment we’re doomed to cynical remixes of mockery, a cycle that seems (in Cedar Rapids at least) already on its way post.