The sheltered naïf kicked into the big, crazy world has long been the go-to role for SNL players making the leap to the big screen. For Ed Helms, once a snide correspondent for “The Daily Show,” the role seems a less natural fit, but like his former fellow correspondent Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Helms brings an unexpectedly deep well of sympathy to his small-town insurance agent in Cedar Rapids. It may help that Chuck and Buck director Miguel Arteta is at the helm, and he knows from lonely manchildren.

Tim Lippe’s 34-year infantalization — his boss (Stephen Root) hired him as a teenager after his father’s death, and he’s sleeping with his 7th-grade science teacher (Sigourney Weaver) — comes to an abrupt end when he’s sent to represent his insurance company at the annual convention in Cedar Rapids. With a stack of traveler’s checks secreted in a money belt he’s off on a series of firsts: his first plane ride, his first black friend (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), his first alcoholic drink, and so on, and pretty soon he’s dancing at a lesbian wedding, cavorting with a flirtatious agent (Anne Heche) in the hotel pool and doing drugs with a prostitute (Alia Shawcat) at a raucous party. None of this sits well with the Bible-thumping convention chairman (Kurtwood Smith), who requires grace before meals and will not give the coveted Two Diamonds Award to someone engaged in less-than-Godly activities. Of course this holy roller is a hypocrite, while the client-poacher Tim was warned about (John C. Reilly), a vulgar party animal, turns out to be not such a bad guy after all.

Helms’ sincere performance as a man trying to figure out the rules while handing out butterscotches isn’t all that’s unexpected; there’s also the film’s refreshing lack of condescension to people who happen to live in the flyovers and work for a living. In Phil Johnston’s screenplay a profession often maligned in the movies is appraised as necessary, even desirable — as the jingle says, “like a good neighbor.”

 

It’s hard to convey what it was like to see Spalding Gray live, sitting at his desk in his plaid shirt with his water, a master of that neat stage trick that made it seem like he was speaking directly to you. For me it was at Yale in 1994; 10 years later he jumped off the Staten Island ferry, after struggling for two years with depression and a head injury after a crippling car accident. The ironic title of Steven Soderbergh’s documentary comes from a blizzard of a passage about Gray’s father’s remarriage after his mother’s suicide, and it’s impossible to watch the movie without reading the performer’s end into every monologue, every confession, Soderbergh seeming to have chosen clips for their foreshadowing import. And yet the suicide, and the several attempts that preceded it, are missing from And Everything is Going Fine, which is only a movie in that it runs 89 minutes and will be seen by some in a darkened room. For fans, it’s an indispensable collection of rarely seen performance clips. For anyone else it will provoke head-scratching and a nagging “Why?”

Soderbergh, who first cast Gray as a suicide in King of the Hill and later directed the film of his Gray’s Anatomy, has assembled Gray’s performances into a straightforward, chronological, and stodgily artless retelling of the performer’s life, a last monologue by a man who made his life his work. But, as we are told twice, the confessionary pose was deceptive; Gray called his work “poetic journalism,” giving himself license to hyperbolize, but Soderbergh takes everything at face value. When there are holes in the narrative the director adds interview footage — a chat in the Hamptons with Barbara Kopple, a videotaped conversation with his father, appearances on E! and MTV. (Those were the days!) While these clips are informative, they reduce the performer’s artistry to straight-up confessions that might equally occur in front of an audience or across the table from a disturbingly jovial Charlie Rose. Did his Christian Scientist mother really say when he sustained a third-degree burn, “Put some soap on it and know the truth”? “Sometimes I don’t know when I’m fictionalizing,” says Gray to his father, who replies, “I don’t know when you are either.” We leave with a strong grasp on the man, but little sense of the artist that made him who he was.

 

Night Catches Us is set in Philadelphia in 1976, after the decline of the Black Panther Party — a tantalizing prospect — but puts its characters through the paces of a generic melodrama. Marcus (Anthony Mackie) has returned to the old neighborhood for his minister father’s funeral with nothing more than a small bag of clothes and a television set, having done some time in prison and some more on the road. When his brother (Tariq Trotter of the Roots, who did the score), now a Muslim, kicks him out of their father’s mansion, he is taken in by his old friend Patricia (Kerry Washington), even though he was implicated in her husband’s death. The community reviles him as a snitch, and worse, a “chump,” but Patricia, and soon the audience, know the truth. Meanwhile Patricia’s teenage cousin Jimmy (Amari Cheatom), who’s had his share of run-ins with the cops, becomes convinced that a black beret and a gun are still the answer.

“You’re living in the past, Patricia,” says her bougie boyfriend (producer Ron Simon), and that’s typical of Tanya Hamilton’s cliché-ridden dialogue, which only Mackie can make seem natural. (Jimmy’s fate is equally clichéd.) Hamilton intersperses the melodrama with documentary footage of the Black Panthers and in one clever segment, an animated, crudely drawn recruiting comic book, which Marcus later explains was actually distributed by the FBI. So why does he give it to Patricia’s daughter? The mid-’70s milieu is nicely underplayed, but the sprawling, historic houses of the Germantown neighborhood seem unlikely to have spawned radicalism. (Hamilton has admitted to taking artistic license with the setting.) In the rap that plays over the closing credits Trotter compares the not-so-mean-streets of Philly to Rwanda — like the film, imposing hyperbole where authentic drama could have been excavated.