Ed Helms is seemingly best known for his roll on The Office, at least from my experience whenever I mention his name that seems to be the first thing out of people’s mouths when brought up. A close second to that would be his role as Stu in the 2009 breakout hit The Hangover. I mention this as this is the first time I can think that Helms has gotten top billing in a comedy. Though contrary to what the poster for the 2009 blacklisted script for the new film, and Helms star Cedar Rapids would have you believe, it is more of an ensemble, and a hilarious “R” rated one at that.
Helms is Tim Lippe, a small town insurance sales man that loves the town he lives in and the people he serves. Lippe also suffers from arrested development mixed with small town naivety. He is after all “pre-engaged” to his former school teacher and recent divorcée Macy (Sigourney Weaver), though she isn’t aware of that. Lippe has always played second fiddle at Brownstar Insurance where they’ve won the double diamond award at the annual regional insurance company convention for three years running. After the shining star of Bronwstar meets an untimely demise as a result of auto-erotic asphyxiation, Lippe becomes Brownstar’s go-to guy to represent the company at the convention taking place in a big city like he’s never seen before, the not quite mega metropolis of Cedar Rapids, IA. Note to any “Iowagians” reading this, none of the film was shot on location in Cedar Rapids, according to the production notes it was filmed primarily in Michigan.
In Cedar Rapids, and the very generic looking taupe-walls-everywhere hotel, Lippe first encounters a prostitute (Alia Shawkat) working the lot. Though thanks to his “fish out of water” circumstance obviously doesn’t get it. He also finds out that to save cost that he is staying with a group that look forward to the conference each year as nothing more than a chance to cut loose. Lippe treats the trip as some exotic get away, which seems interrupted when he finds out he is sharing his hotel room with Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr., HBO’s The Wire) a big, imposing, though mild mannered and kind African American who has an affinity for (in a meta moment) the HBO series The Wire; and also Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) who can’t wait to get to the local bar and get the party started. The group is rounded out by Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), a woman who toys with Lippe’s naivety at every possible turn with innuendos and double entendres. Its here that Cedar Rapids cuts loose and has fun as it morphs into a coming of age tale for Tim. It takes Tim a bit to let down his defenses around the group but once he does, antics ensue.
Director Miguel Arteta, who handled the same duty on last year’s overlooked Youth in Revolt, and Jennifer Aniston’s one solid film The Good Girl handles the comedy with a very even, if not superb hand. Some of the comedy elements could have easily been taken overboard from Phil Johnston’s script but the proceedings are kept from getting too out of control. I think this is one of the better roles I have seen John C. Reilly in as of late as he doesn’t feel like he is playing another version of his typical goofy man-child act. Further the entire group is seen having an infectious fun that really comes off the screen and infects the viewer inviting you to laugh along with them, which I did quite often.
So it seems that things are perfect in Cedar Rapids which is mostly true. By the third act, even with it’s shorter hour and twenty six minute run time the film starts to lose a bit of steam and comes precariously close to the precipice of dull. It’s ultimate savor lies in some absurdest moments as Lippe in a moment of being down and feeling out heads out to the country with the prostitute Bree (Shawkat) and discovers drugs. Mix in a late appearance by Rob Corddry (Hot Tub Time Machine) as a tatted up Midwestern thirty something still acting twenty something rebel-rousing party goer and the film livens back up.
Cedar Rapids is a fun, at times laugh out loud affair that is a welcomed breath of comedy air in the final sprint of the serious and heady dramas of Oscar season which still linger around at the theater. While not the first comedy of the year and far from the last it sets a pretty high bar for those that will come later.
I give Cedar Rapids 4 “undercover travel wallets” out of 5
By John Coovert