Through the course of Miguel Arteta’s directing career, his work has been notable for its different moods; the sweet and the sour go hand in hand in movies such as “The Good Girl” and “Youth in Revolt,” and it comes as no surprise that his TV jobs have included darkly funny series such as “Six Feet
Under” and “The Office.”
All of that comes together in the Puerto Rico-born director’s new picture, “Cedar Rapids,” a raucously funny yet bittersweet film about the high jinks at a Midwestern insurance convention.
Conceived by writer Phil Johnston as a vehicle for “Hangover” comic Ed Helms, the movie never falters in its blend of vulgarity and generosity.
The genial Arteta came to the area recently for an interview, and he talked about the mixing of moods.
“I love balancing all the tones out there and letting them land where they fall,” he said. “The script had a lot of affection for the characters. They steal, cheat and swear, but you don’t judge them.
“When you do a comedy like this, it’s important to have fun with your characters, but not make fun of them.”
He also noticed a certain reliable structure. The Helms character is aided by a trio of more experienced conventioneers.
“It’s kind of the ‘Wizard of Oz’ of insurance people,” Arteta said. “Ed Helms goes to Oz and meets the three people who change his life.”
Helms was attached to the project from the start, but for the rest, Arteta says, “I rolled the casting dice and hoped for the magic to happen.”
He had admired Anne Heche’s comic skills since “Six Days Seven Nights,” and likened her to a classic screwball-comedy actress, “like Carole Lombard — beautiful, funny, great timing. I had been wanting to work with her for years.”
In describing the wild but touching performance by John C. Reilly, Arteta observed that “there’s something very poignant about what he’s doing.”
Reilly’s character is a back-slapping party animal, but also incredibly lonely. In a scene where Reilly delivers a bare-chested lesson in life to Helms, Arteta said that Helms told him later he’d had trouble not laughing during the scene, and yet he could see that Reilly was hitting the sad notes, too.
As for Helms, a former “Daily Show” regular who found another niche on “The Office,” Arteta thought he carried a Jack Lemmon quality.
“He can do non-nasty comedy. It’s really hard to be funny but have a good heart, and Ed does that.
“Plus, he looks like he might work at an insurance company.”
Arteta is aware that “Cedar Rapids” falls into an unusual niche.
“A lot of people are expecting the shocking, more hip kind of comedies,” he said. “I worked hard to make it funny, but it’s not that kind of movie.”
Arteta described an almost charmed life for the project. Johnston, a former Wisconsin weather reporter, wrote it with Helms in mind, and then attracted the attention of “Sideways” director Alexander Payne, who came on as a producer.
“He was a great godfather to have,” Arteta said. “I don’t know why they came to a Puerto Rican for a director. But there you go.”