I expend a lot of critical chutzpah on the painfully-obvious art-blindness of contemporary North American Protestant Evangelical (NAPE) “culture,” so I think it’s fair that I take a break from time to time to launch a few missive missiles in the other direction.
I have mentioned on my personal blog the poor artistic form shown in the way Christians were caricatured in the film Easy A, and last night I watched another rave-reviewed picture that takes that caricaturization to another level. In Cedar Rapids, a well-behaved, small-town insurance agent named Tim Lippe (perfectly played by Ed Helms) goes to the “big city” of Cedar Rapids, Iowa to represent his company at an annual insurance convention. Lippe is a repressed, anxious fellow, paralysed by fear of failure.
This is a problem, of course, and one that is solved over the course of the film as Lippe learns to think for himself, loosen up, and take ownership of his own life. He accomplishes this by befriending a prostitute, doing a cocktail of drugs, getting in a fight, sleeping with a married woman, and finally seeing past the hypocricy of his vocally “Christian” employer and the loudly “Christian” dink who presides over the convention.
Now, I’m not gonna nit-pick Lippe’s decisions. Befriending prostitutes is the sort of thing Jesus Christ actually did, after all, and sometimes you have to do something dumb (like going to a house party with strangers after smoking unknown substances) to know why being smart is better. The problem I have with this film is not that I didn’t buy the importance of Lippe’s journey or the choices he makes, it’s a few of the unsettling moral assumptions underlying the story.
A good story is honest, and people honestly do a lot of dumb things, which is one of the reasons why this qualifies as a good story. But a story can be good as a story and still be a few sandwiches short of a moral picnic, because the moral value of a tale comes not from what the characters do, but what the film says about the relative moral worth of those actions. While Cedar Rapids does show the negative consequences of Lippe’s drug-spree, the adultery he engages in is seen as a perfectly healthy, harmless activity, and his feelings of remorse are mocked as childish and stupid.
This fits with the tone of the whole movie, the main theme of which seems to be that in order to not be a lying hypocrite like those Christians, you have to be willing to chuck out any and all of their moral strictures. I get where they’re coming from with this, I do. It is a horrible thing to live a life of fear, following whatever moral rules get handed down by some institution. But it seems to me that a lot of babies are getting thrown out with the bathwater, here. Adultery is not a victimless crime. People get hurt, and it isn’t just paper-thin villains who think adultery is bad.
While Cedar Rapids is an entertaining flick, I give it a C-minus for weak moral reasoning, caricatured villains, and yet another sledgehammer-blow to the face of NAPE culture, when a scalpel would have perhaps been more useful.