For Ed Helms as the comedy's wide-eyed hero, a convention offers a new outlook on life.
"Cedar Rapids" is a triple-strength comedy, distilling the workplace wit of "The Office," the boys-on-a-bender rowdiness of "The Hangover" and the wistful character notes of "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" into a cocktail all its own.
Ed Helms plays Tim Lippe, a radically naive insurance agent in Brown Valley, Wis. (ponder that for a moment), who is forced outside his comfort zone when he's delegated to attend the annual industry conference in Iowa's Sin City, Cedar Rapids.
Dazzled by the heady chlorine scent of his hotel's atrium pool, and the worldly ways of the karaoke-singing conventioneers, Tim reacts like a wide-eyed new kid at summer camp. The film proves the adage that travel broadens the mind as this paragon of common decency goes through the wringer over a wild weekend that begins with a tentative sip of cream sherry and concludes with fistfights, hookers and crack. Tim's mundane outing becomes a journey of enlightenment that offers him a new lease on life.
Helms is wonderfully empathetic as the coltish rookie salesman. Somewhere in his 30s, Tim hasn't quite grasped how grownups make their way in the world. Blind to hypocrisy, he has affectionate but twisted relations with the adults in his life. Tim's boss (the great character actor Stephen Root) needs someone to represent the firm at the Iowa conclave after his star agent dies under scandalous circumstances. Guileless Tim seems the ideal candidate to win over the trade association's Bible-thumping chairman (Kurtwood Smith).
Bidding a weekend-long farewell to his lover and former grade-school teacher (a wonderfully wry and maternal Sigourney Weaver), Tim goes in quest of "the prestigious Two Diamonds Award" that will keep struggling Brown Star Insurance afloat. When he arrives in the wide-open town, he attracts his colleagues, cougarish O-Fox (Anne Heche), buttoned-up Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and party animal Deanzie (John C. Reilly, who simply flies). They open Mr. Uptight's eyes to a brave new world of misbehavior, encouraging him to live a little. Then, when he's teetering on the brink of personal and professional catastrophe, they rescue him. He's in good hands.
With a delightful script by Phil Johnston and sensitive direction by Miguel Arteta, "Cedar Rapids" is a late-in-life coming-of-age movie, at once gleefully juvenile and ruefully mature. It's a marvelous mix of tones, from the shallow bonhomie of business travelers in a hotel bar to moments of tenderness that simply ambush you.
Heche disappears into her role as a swaggering bad girl who is really an unfulfilled suburban mom aching for a no-strings fling. Reilly contributes a nutty, anarchic turn as a loudmouth with a well-concealed but genuine longing for acceptance. There is a hysterical scene in which he explains the secrets of salesmanship to Helms while doing a paunchy-guy hula in his boxers.
The cast is uniformly excellent but Helms, in the role with the greatest range, is outstanding. He's both a hopeless square and a Mr. Deeds-style small-town hero. He's enormously entertaining in comic scenes, and then he puts a lump in your throat with a story about how a concerned insurance man fought on his mom's behalf after a tragedy.
The film is stocked with characters that surprise you, some because they're frauds, others because they're as complicated as real people. "Cedar Rapids" treats its Midwestern characters with a complex mix of bemusement, affection and identification. It isn't making fun of them, it's making fun out of them. Tremendous fun.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186