Cedar Rapids played like gangbusters when I saw it at the Eccles a couple of weeks ago during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Everyone in the theatre got every last joke and allusion, and they laughed and applauded their asses off. But much of Miguel Arteta ‘s film played kinda flat and ho-hummy when I saw it last night at the Lincoln Square with my son Jett and maybe 50 or 60 others.
Why? A good film is a good film no matter where you see it or with whom, right? No — some well-made, quality-level movies need a good audience. It’s a give-and-take, back-and-forth thing — the film feeds the audience and vice versa. Al I know is that the folks I saw it with last night (my son included) were so dead and unresponsive that they sucked the oxygen right out of the room and out of the film. That put me into a bad mood and I began to feel irritated. I turned around and glared at the audience a couple of times.
There’s a tiny little bit in the beginning when Ed Helms starts to give a faint attaboy hug to a star salesman in his Brownstar Insurance office. But the salesman, who wants as little to do with Helms as possible, ever so slightly flinches. The Sundance audience got it, chuckled. Last night’s audience sat there like crash-test dummies.
It’s the same dynamic that Broadway theatre critics have been writing about for decades. A dead audience can make a good comedy seem a lot less funny than it actually is in the eyes of God. Same deal with sharp comedians in a comedy clubs — if an audience is too thick or slow of pulse to respond to the material in the right way, they can kill any joke or punchline — they can reduce a comedian to tears.
All I know is that I could feel the deadness at the very beginning, and I knew it wasn’t the film’s fault. It was the damn people around me, and particularly Jett. He was checking messages on his iPhone three minutes into the film. I backhanded his leg and told him
to cut it out. Five minutes later he leaned over and whispered, “This isn’t funny.” But his reaction would have been different if he’d seen Cedar Rapids with me at the Eccles. I know it would have been.