A Miguel Arteta double feature! Starting with his first feature as director, 2000’s Chuck and Buck (C&B), Miguel Arteta has made a small name for himself with his largely inoffensive comedies. The problem is that his latest film, Cedar Rapids, shows no progression across the 10-year span…if not a regression.
C&B is great – very “standard” camera, lighting, etc. It’s high-key and unobtrusive for the comedy, but the writing in here is what puts it over the top. That and the pacing. Arteta is not afraid to let the awkwardness really really play out. Quick plot summary: Buck (Mike White) stalks his old friend Chuck (Chris Weitz), convinced that they are still friends. Buck is awkward, shy, and possibly homosexual. Chuck is successful, arrogant, and engaged (heterosexually). The film is funny, dark, and pretty daring at times.
Cedar Rapids, on the other hand, is what is passing for an indie comedy these days. It’s such a tired film. So overdone. I was actually mad at the end. I laughed a few times (and granted, I laughed hard), but is this really what is meant to be the “real” comedy that Hollywood is afraid to touch? It’s so safe and predictable. The camera has some nice moments, but overall it’s so boring. I’ve seen this film about 30 times. At least Up in the Air took the conference-tryst-self-realization film and made it about something more, and had real drama. Quick plot summary: Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is a naive insurance salesman. He’s got a heart of gold, and sometimes that gold weighs him down. He goes to the insurance conference in the hopes of winning the coveted Two Diamonds award. What ensues is exactly what you’d expect: potential love affair, hotel hijinks, bad and good guys, etc.
So…if Arteta started with C&B and just made Cedar Rapids what does that say about him? Or probably more importantly, what does it say about the evolution of one’s career once they are entrenched within the “system”? No risk. This should be a director’s greatest fear.
Granted, I’m an outsider. It’s easy for me to say. My guess – Arteta liked the script (it does have small elements of C&B – the innocent man, not yet grown up (Tim and Buck), the somewhat daring climactic moment). Another guess – he liked the cast (which I mostly like as well). Another guess – it’s safe and will get him another feature easily, which I like to scoff at now and frankly, hope that I continue to scoff at.
Aren’t you supposed to grow as a filmmaker. Evolve not only in your ideas and themes, but also your aesthetic – your style? Arteta has regressed. The acting is better, but not much else is in Cedar Rapids. The #1 change: Cedar Rapids caters to a mainstream public. C&B does not.
There is a moment in Cedar Rapids that actually shows some sparks of life: a young prostitute named Bree (Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development) and Tim are in a bathroom. He’s high on crack and coke. And probably drunk. The framing is tight and slightly off-kilter. There’s a little bit of energy in the frame (hey Fresnadillo – here’s a good and appropriate use of handheld that doesn’t undermine the action). The acting gets a bit darker as do the lines. In this moment it feels as though we’ve moved off the beaten trail, and for a few short lines we have – Tim opens up. He admits things that bring his character outside of the 2-dimensional realm in which we have seen him thus far. There’s a sense of danger and possibility in the air. Momentarily, we believe that the film might take an unexpected turn. But it doesn’t.
Worth noting, particularly because of my previous thoughts on style: Arteta has an unobtrusive camera, but his is not style-less. In both films Arteta makes his point by a well-timed use of the close-up, nice 2-shots (great one with John C. Reilly in FG and Ed Helms in BG in Cedar) — Arteta sort of feels like an updated Capra (sorry, Capra fans. Is that blasphemy?) – the idealistic leading man, the comedy commenting on social norms, the invisible Hollywood style that is still graceful (though as I’ve noted here, boring).
The romance is probably the only genre aside from the comedy where the camera tries to remain as unobtrusive as possible, as often as possible. Why?
1) you don’t need the crackling energy of the thriller where sometimes the cam is necessary to add to the feel; 2) you don’t need the suspense of the horror; etc
In short, it is difficult, but definitely not impossible to make a camera move or a frame funny or romantic, while it is the opposite case with a thriller, drama, horror film, etc. But not impossible.
Case-in-point: let’s talk Friday the 13th again. The camera moves become scary and tense because, as we all know, it is established early on that, to some (cheap) extent, the camera = the killer. Easy example. Here’s an example of a frame being funny. In the film American Movie Mark Borchardt, the main character and aspiring filmmaker, is struggling to get one particularly violent scene shot over the course of a stressful night. Chris Smith, the director, cuts often between the behind-the-scenes of the actual shoot, and interviews with the cast and crew from that same night. At one point, when failure appears probably, Smith cuts to a medium shot of Borchardt. The camera looks slightly up at him, framing the low ceiling dramatically, and comically, above. He looks closed in. He’s not wearing a shirt and the medium shot, waist up, emphasizes that fact. But the real joke: Borchardt’s hands are hanging down out of frame. About halfway through the interview he lifts one up, revealing that he’s actually been drinking a beer this whole time! It’s hilarious, and were the frame different – a CU or WS for example – the joke would be lost, or if there, be entirely different.
What was my point? Oh right – that the successful film, even the comedy and the romance, will still use the basic building blocks of filmmaking to underscore and underline ideas that are present in the script and acting. Arteta does this to a much greater extent in his 2000 film Chuck and Buck, and falls away from it and onto the backs of Ed Helms and John C. Reilly in Cedar Rapids.