Two films, this week, because I spoil you — what can I say? It’s in my nature — and not much to choose between them apart from the fact that one is good (Cedar Rapids) and one is so bad (Arthur) that just thinking about it makes me want to weep for myself, for remakes, for film audiences, for the state of cinema today, for humankind and for dogs that are cruelly treated, which is not especially relevant but, if I am weeping anyway, I might as well include them.
Two films, this week, because I spoil you — what can I say? It’s in my nature — and not much to choose between them apart from the fact that one is good (Cedar Rapids) and one is so bad (Arthur) that just thinking about it makes me want to weep for myself, for remakes, for film audiences, for the state of cinema today, for humankind and for dogs that are cruelly treated, which is not especially relevant but, if I am weeping anyway, I might as well include them. You wouldn’t want to waste a weep.
But let’s start brightly, with Cedar Rapids, which, with its familiar characters and familiar story arc, isn’t a blazingly original comedy, but it has such a nice, tender-hearted feel to it I was won over and charmed.
It stars Ed Helms (from the American version of The Office, apparently, and The Hangover), as Tim Lippe, an insurance agent who has never left his small hometown of Brown Valley in Wisconsin. He lives in his childhood house. He has never stayed in a hotel. He has never been on an aeroplane. He is a naif and while there is nothing new about naifs in movies — Being There; Forrest Gump, The Truman Show — this is smart enough to have a few neat surprises up its sleeve. You’d assume, for example, that Lippe was a virgin but he is not. He is sleeping with his former schoolteacher, Miss Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver), who still treats him like the little boy he once was and, to a large extent, still is. This sounds quite creepy but, in fact, it’s rather sweet, and not without pathos, and Ms Weaver is just delicious.
Anyway, it’s all change and all systems go when, at the last minute, Lippe is dispatched to an insurance convention in the titular city, which is in Iowa. This is not a surprise, as there is no point having a naif unless you tip him into the un-naif world, and Lippe is thrilled with everything. It blows his mind. He is constantly on the phone to Miss Vanderhei, describing the plane, the hotel, the hotel swimming-pool: ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s incredible. There’s like palm trees and stuff. The whole place smells like chlorine. It’s like I’m in Barbados or somewhere!’
Lippe rooms with two other sales reps: Dean (John C. Reilly), a loudmouth, smutty party animal, and Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr) , who is courtlier and describes himself as ‘an enthusiast of that HBO series The Wire’. The joke here is that Whitlock was in The Wire. He played Senator Clay ‘sheeeeeeee-it’ Davis. He does an Omar impression at one point, and I actually laughed out loud, which is no small thing considering we live in a world where dogs are chained up all day in yards and even dumped on motorways.
You know, there is nothing complicated about any of these men; nothing complicated at all. But the writer (Phil Johnston) and director (Miguel Arteta) treat them with such kindness and affection you sort of fall in love with them. You know the trajectory. That Lippe will undergo a quick education, and he does.
There are drugs. There are late-night swimming-pool shenanigans. There are prostitutes. There is bribery. There is skulduggery. There is cream sherry. And there is Joan (Anne Heche), who uses the convention to forget her husband and kids and who is, by far, the most morally tricky character, but Heche pulls it off with great feeling. And although you know that Lippe’s goodness, hope and optimism will triumph at the end, it’s still a funny and satisfying journey which, at 87 minutes, doesn’t affect to be more than it is.
And now, the remake of Arthur with Russell Brand starring in the Dudley Moore role, and Helen Mirren starring in the John Gielgud role — Hobson the butler has now become Hobson the nanny — and if I could blank it from my mind right now, I would. My only hope is that, with time, the memory will fade. Arthur is a lonely, zillionaire playboy awash with booze but whereas Moore somehow managed to make his Arthur endearing and lovable — and whereas, come to think of it, Helms makes Lippe endearing and lovable — Brand’s Arthur is puerile, infantile and hateful. ‘This safari into pointlessness must end,’ says Mirren at one stage, and I was with her all the way.
Watch and weep, my friends, watch and weep, and, while doing so, think of all the dogs that overheat in hot cars because their owners are too dumb to open a window. Might as well.