Miguel Arteta directs Cedar Rapids. It got raves at the annual Sundance Film Festival a couple of months ago and is just now going wide-release. It opened Friday, March 18 at Regal’s Columbia Center 8.
To give you a reference point, Arteta did the acclaimed The Good Girl with Jennifer Aniston in 2002 and 2009‘s Michael Cera star vehicle Youth in Revolt.
Characters are what Arteta likes most about movies. Speaking of characters. He spent some time with me to talk about Cedar Rapids.
Gary Wolcott: Your movie says really nice things about insurance agents.
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Arteta: One of the things that attracted me to this script is that Ed Helms’ character can see the good in anything. The fact that he sees a noble cause in insurance — something we don’t think about very often — I found very original and great. Insurance is not evil. We pay reasonable prices so that when accidents happen we are protected. It’s almost like a community service.
I like the idea of a character that can see good in places where other people don’t.
GW: I know a lot of insurance agents. Many are like Ed Helms’ character. They are caring people. When there is an emergency somewhere, they are the first to respond. They’re out there taking care of their clients. They sometimes get the blame for what companies do, but these people love their clients and they love the business. And your take on an insurance convention — while a little exaggerated — is pretty good.
Arteta: You’ve been to some of them?
GW: Yes, I’ve been to at least a dozen. An association of independent insurance agents in nine western states is one of my clients. Insurance agents are a lot of fun. And most of them — though rivals — are very good friends.
Arteta: The real special thing about this script is that it is about friendship. And when you go to a convention, or an event like one, you might make a life-long friend. There is something magical about the first few days spent with someone you know is going to be a friend for life.
That’s what this movie is about.
GW: I love your characters and the way you do characters. It is what I liked about The Good Girl. You understand regular people and have a love for them that I don’t see very often.
Arteta: That’s why I make movies. I am attracted to regular people. There isn’t one person I know of that isn’t wounded in some way by their childhood. We don’t talk about that very often. I like bringing that to the surface. We all have damage and we all have difficulty. If you’re brave enough to deal with it you can find some love. I guess that’s part of the message here.
GW: That was Ed Helms’ character. Through all his tragedy, he became a really great person. He’s just a good guy.
Arteta: What I’m looking for in a character is someone that is kind but not a chump. Ed Helms’ character is kind hearted. All he has to learn is not to be a chump.
GW: The film did well at Sundance and the buzz has been good for your movie. Does that surprise you?
Arteta: I am very pleased. Ed Helms obviously has a lot of good will because of The Office and The Hangover. I think people recognize that he’s a little different than a lot of comics. He has that sweetness in him that in these difficult times people are yearning for.
Same with the rest of the cast. People love seeing a movie about friends.
The chemistry between the four leads — Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche and Isiah Whitlock Jr. from The Wire — is amazing. We wanted to make a movie about what happens when you find lifelong friends. To do that you have to have a crew that really comes together.
As a director you use your best hunch that there will be magic and chemistry. It doesn’t always happen, but it happened here. People are feeling that chemistry and it is awesome.
This is The Wizard of Oz of insurance. Ed Helms is Dorothy going to the Emerald City of Cedar Rapids. On the way he meets these three motley characters that end up helping each other. People really love their connection.
GW: That is a very interesting way to put it. In movies I love chemistry between the actors. And you use some great character actors in this one.
Arteta: People like Stephen Root and Kurtwood Smith are amazing. Rob Corddry came and helped. Tom Lennon from Reno 911 had a little cameo. A lot of people signed onto this movie.
I am a humongous fan of John C. Reilly. I worked with him in The Good Girl. It’s hard to get him excited because he has done so many parts. But he really responded to his character. He had more fun than I’ve ever seen him have. He was in stitches every day.
Anne Heche is someone I have admired for a long time. She sort of fell off the map for awhile. She is a great comedian and a very good actress.
GW: It looks like one of those films that everybody had a good time doing. What have you seen lately that you like?
Arteta: I really liked the British movie Another Year. I really liked True Grit. It was really entertaining. I have so much respect for Jeff Bridges.
GW: Who would you like to work with in the future?
Arteta: Owen Wilson and Will Ferrell and do something different with them.
GW: This film is definitely something different and you’ve made a bunch of insurance agents really happy that someone in movies appreciates their work.
Arteta: Insurance agents are important to all of us. We wanted to have some fun with them and with their characters but never make fun of them.