Sunday, August 14, 2011

Cedar Rapids and Seinfeld: Morality and Media

Cedar Rapids is a movie no one is talking about. Yet, as a cultural marker, I believe it has special significance.  It's Ed Helms attempt to reprise Steve Carrell's innocent everyman from 40 Year Old Virgin. It's writer Phil Johnston's attempt to rehash the themes in The Big Kahuna. It fails on both accounts.

Cedar Rapids is a poor man's version of The Big Kahuna. It's also a morality tale about the immorality of morality. Sound confusing? It is. As morality plays go, The Big Kahuna had the advantage of a sharper and more serious script -- it was easier to take it seriously. Cedar Rapids, on the other hand, is from the Judd Apatow school of comedy: slapstick raunchiness with a moral. At least, it tries to capitalize on the style Apatow made famous; it gets the raunchiness part pretty well. If you saw 40 Year Old Virgin and The Big Kahuna then you've already seen Cedar Rapids. Yet, where Cedar Rapids fails, 40 Year Old Virgin succeeds, and it all comes down to the moral of the story. The former is an immoral comedy which condemns morality; the latter is an immoral comedy which commends morality. The former stumbles, and stumbles, out into the darkness. The latter stumbles, and stumbles, out into the light.

The central problem with Cedar Rapids is that it's a morality tale about the immorality of morality. It calls out hypocrites, and takes numerous shots at Christians and their (supposedly) strict morality. There are a couple of scenes where even prayer is the butt of the joke. Never mind that true Christianity is not represented in the film. Remember the uproar over The Book Of Eli because it, maybe, almost, kinda was seen as a Christian fable? And, maybe, almost, kinda, cast Christianity as a good guy. Well, there wasn't an uproar over Cedar Rapids, even though it is definitely a Christian fable. Only, this time, Christians are the bad guys. Interesting. Methinks some critics protest too much, and then, don't protest at all.

As a morality tale, Cedar Rapids commends immorality. It does this by, first of all, pointing out that everyone -- even the uptight Christian leaders -- have traces of immorality. This vice is become a virtue in entertainment. Yawn. Why not try something really challenging? -- instead of showing that moral people are immoral, try demonstrating that immoral people are moral. That's way more challenging, and much more surprising.

So, moral people -- even the most moral -- are immoral: are hypocrites at points. That's an old song. Not very surprising. With every new fall of a politician, or global icon, or religious leader, we get this message anew. What no one points out, and what is much more startling, is the opposite truth: immoral people are moral. Cedar Rapids, for example, is chock full of morality.

Yes, Cedar Rapids has morals. It has a certain view of morality. It has its own morality. It commends virtues like friendship, integrity, and loyalty, and excuses vices like drug use, drunkenness, and adultery. It certainly has a morality; it may be the wrong one; it certainly is. As moralities go, it may offer a weaker, sicker, and paler morality than Christianity, but its morality is written in every scene. It's no good calling Christians hypocrites because they have a morality. Everyone has a morality. Even the most immoral person has a take on morality, and a code of ethics. This movie comes to the boring conclusion that moral people are immoral; it proves the startling conclusion that immoral people are moral. Cedar Rapids has a righteous indignation which rivals any Pharisee. All the while, it mocks righteousness: the righteousness of others. Thus, it ends up being an oddly self-righteous movie aimed against self-righteous people.

Seinfeld deserves honorable mention in any pantheon of "morality plays." For my money, it does a more honest days work than Cedar Rapids on the morality question. At least, it commends amorality instead of immorality. Seinfeld attempted to be a non-morality play: "No hugging. No learning." It attempted to offer no morals, no lessons, and no epigrams. It tried real hard to offer up laughs, and only laughs. Seinfeld was to entertainment what Nietzsche was to philosophy; what Skinner was to Sociology; what Freakonomics was to Economics. However, Seinfeld also failed. Seinfeld had a morality; it had a moral take on the universe. Even if it protested, "I have no take" -- it had a take. It moralized all the time. Maybe the moral is harder to find, but that's only because it's morality is weaker and translucent. The fact is, everyone possesses a morality and lives this out every day. You can't talk about life without morals just like you can't breathe without oxygen. It's nonsense. It's irrational.

by L.S.S

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