The other night on Pay Per View, I enjoyed Cedar Rapids, a truly funny flick about small-time Insurance Agents who gather at a convention.
And what doubled my pleasure was that, in between the laughs, I couldn't help but read the movie as reflective of our culture's current qualms about the dependability of its own economic institutions, and the businesses that promote them.
After all, how many times have you seen an insurance company touted as "rock solid"? And don't brand images like this entail promises of impeccable integrity and care? Yet, who looked shakier during the recent crash than AIG?
The Education of a Small-Town Guy
Such issues are played out hilariously through the hero of this tale: a small-town guy named Tim Lippe. Lippe is ordered by his boss to attend a convention in Cedar Rapids, IA (a big city, for him).
His assignment is to redeem the credibility of his insurance company from scandal. One of its main agents died in unseemly circumstances (via auto-asphyxiation) and there are rumors that the company's "Double Diamond Award" (for integrity) will be rescinded. Lippe's job is to come home with the award once again.
Lippe is a true believer in the insurance business. We find out that agents helped his mother get back on her feet after his father's death. He's also seen his local company help flood victims and others in need
At the same time, he's shown to be incredibly naive, especially socially, and this is played to comic extremes when he meets up with worldly party animals: agents from other towns such as John C. Reilly and Anne Heche.
At might be expected, during the course of the film Reilly and Heche show him how to loosen up. He even has a one night stand with Heche, who's married with kids but has no guilt about getting a little on the side at conventions like these.
Part of his education, though, also entails learning the dirty secrets of the Insurance Business. Reilly reveals to him that the "Double Diamond Award" was achieved through a pay-off of the local President of ASMI (the industry organization throwing the convention).
To make matters worse, this same President (outwardly a holy-roller who starts each conference meeting with a group prayer) wants to deny Lippe the award this year on what amounts to a morals charge: he's seen Lippe partying with his new friends. Lippe then compromises himself by paying him off (for the good of the company's name).
But, of course, in a feel-good comedy, cynicism is never rewarded. Lippe's boss shows up and, with the help of his regained credibility, makes a deal to sell the company. Lippe only gets to keep his job if he relocates to Milwaukee.
At this point, he revolts. He gets in touch with his own clients who agree to stay with him, exposes his boss and the President, and forms his own company (joining forces with the other agents with whom he's been partying).
Who Are the Good Guys?
The movie takes a sort of romantic (and conventional) stance as to who you can really trust. Those who "let it all hang out", are the most honest characters. They're transparent (wearing their hearts on their sleeves). And transparency, perhaps because of the malfeasance that led to the crash, is an increasingly popular word in business culture today.
The portrayal of the villains is also familiar: the most outwardly straight-laced (and powerful) are the culprits.
Ethics or Politics?
Though a fable, this film offers an insight into a problem plaguing our economy. The scholar David Harvey has remarked that what threaten "the system" nowadays are not the needs of those on the lower rungs -- but the privileges demanded by the high and mighty.
And, the movie also agrees with Harvey that, if the credibility of the economy is to be preserved, it will be achieved by the efforts of its foot soldiers.
But here the film parts ways with him. Cedar Rapids suggests that if industries like insurance really did stick to the small-business (and small-town) values they preached -- if they took Lippe's ethics seriously -- a lot of problems would be eliminated.
Harvey sees the answer not in ethics alone, but also politics. As he puts it: "Paradoxically, a strong and powerful social democratic and working-class movement is in a better position to redeem capitalism than is capitalist class power itself."
In any case, it's interesting that what's caused social upheavals in recent times is the same as what leads to trouble in the movie. From Cedar Rapids to Cairo, what pisses people off is the idea that those they've been asked to trust are pocketing all the money and the benefits for themselves. Thoughts?