Few Iowans of any political persuasion are unfamiliar with Raygun, a t-shirt and media emporium that declares itself to be “The Greatest Store in the Universe” (many would concur). Each presidential election cycle, Raygun receives national attention for its t-shirts with political slogans that are equal parts biting and hilarious while aligning with a liberal ethos. Although Raygun continues to release current events slogans beyond presidential elections (a recent shirt declares, “We have nothing to fear but covfefe”), the brand’s primary offerings are local color slogans that simultaneously celebrate and satirize midwestern identity. Raygun assigns honorifics to cities that rarely receive them, highlighting the quotidian as point of subtly ironic pride.
One such city is Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Raygun offers a series of shirts referencing the city’s Czech heritage, its unique city nickname (“The City of Five Seasons,” the fifth season somehow being the time to appreciate the other four seasons), and its history of corn and grain processing. One product consistently associated with Cedar Rapids is cereal; Raygun declares it to be, alternately, the city pervaded by the scent of cereal production, the city “punching holes in Cheerios since 1910,” and the city built on a Quaker Oats bedrock. The success of these slogans does not rely on familiarity with Cedar Rapids and its economic history, though they certainly could appeal to a hometown market. Instead, the slogans allow any t-shirt wearer to step into Cedar Rapids through a familiar product and identify, albeit briefly, with an unexpected aspect of local color. They unite the stereotypically hipster desire for ironic distance with a genuine affection for passed-over midwestern locales.
Director Miguel Arteta’s film, Cedar Rapids (2011), attempts to accomplish much the same project as a Raygun slogan by drawing an unfamiliar audience into the story of a place and the idiosyncrasies of the people that inhabit it (or, more true to the film’s plot, pass through). But Cedar Rapids [End Page 199] fails to accomplish any material connection with local identity, instead settling for a city versus country narrative tension that misses nearly all of the endearing quirks of place that the local color genre embraces. In the end, the film’s viewers can neither “smell the Crunchberries” (again, Raygun’s phrase) nor settle into a satisfying character study of an antihero.
Cedar Rapids is a film divided between two narratives. The first is a story steeped in assumptions about regional identity, more specifically, how the identity of those from areas marked “rural” respond when confronted with areas marked “cosmopolitan.” The second, more prominent narrative, is a story about arrested development. Protagonist Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is a middle-aged insurance salesman from a small town in fictional Brown Valley, Wisconsin. His sphere of life experience is protracted in key and predictable ways. Lippe lives a life withdrawn from contemporary taste: his house and wardrobe are well-preserved seventies throwbacks, his pageboy haircut looks unchanged from middle school, and he is currently engaged in a sexual relationship with his former teacher, Maci Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver), to whom he pledges his undying affection despite her apparent indifference. When Brownstar Insurance, Lippe’s employer, loses its top insurance salesman Roger Lemke (portrayed wonderfully, albeit briefly, by Thomas Lennon), dies unexpectedly, Lippe is forced to travel to Cedar Rapids for the agency’s annual conference in his stead. Lippe begins the trip with a predictable naiveté, confused by the seemingly fast-paced world of Cedar Rapids. His initial faux pas brand him an uptight, if well-intentioned bumpkin among his peers, most of whom also hail from small towns in Wisconsin yet seem to have achieved at least marginal levels of contemporary acculturation. In the midst of the conference (which feels more akin to a summer camp for adults), Lippe meets a motley crew of acquaintances who he befriends and carouses with, including his doppelganger Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a character as deeply stunted as Lippe with a more explicit vocabulary. Ultimately, the group pulls together to support Lippe when he is confronted with a loss of innocence in the form of corruption...