Cedar Rapids (2011) / Comedy
MPAA Rated R for crude and sexual content, language and drug use
Running time: 87 min.
Cast: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Kurtwood Smith, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Root, Alia Shawkat, Thomas Lennon, Rob Corddry, Mike O'Malley
Director: Miguel Arteta
Screenplay: Phil Johnston
Ed Helms (Semi-Pro, The Hangover) plays Tim Lippe, an insurance salesperson whose lived a highly sheltered life in a small town in Wisconsin. The insurance company's top salesman (Lennon, I Love You Man) suffers a fatal accident that showcases him as a sexual deviant, potentially putting a black eye on the company's sterling reputation just before the Midwest insurance industry's big annual convention taking place in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Tim's boss (Root, The Men Who Stare at Goats) sends him to the convention to represent the company. smoothing things over from a public relations standpoint, and (hopefully) accept the vaunted Two Diamond Award on their behalf. While there, Tim, who has never been out of his protected existence (he's never even been on a plane before), proves to be a real fish out of water while rubbing shoulders with the seasoned convention attendees, including his vulgar party animal roommate (Reilly, 9) and a sexpot on the prowl (Heche, Superman/Doomsday). It's going to take a great deal of willpower to stay out of trouble with so many bad influences abounding.
Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt, The Good Girl) directs this R-rated comedy, which contains many adult comedy vets and a few sex and poop jokes, but never goes for the all-out gross-out moments you'd expect. The film succeeds due to its investment in its characters and by not forcing situations beyond the ability for the storyline to bear. The movie is produced by Alexander Payne (The Savages, King of California), whose deft hand at subtle humor and ability to cast the dysfunctional loser as hero shows in nearly every frame. Credit not only Arteta, but screenwriter Phil Johnston for playing scenes out no longer than they needed to be and by not going for the easiest of laughs. And above all, as in the best Alexander Payne fashion, the undercurrent of serious themes underneath never erupt into false injection of drama or heavy-handedness -- even the saddest moments rank among the funniest. The locales and personalities feel authentic, even if the situations and characterizations are exaggerated for comedic effect, and it's always true to the world these players inhabit.
Ed Helms performs with likeability and skill, not terribly different from his role in The Hangover as the sweet-natured loser, though more of a sad man in this one after suffering from lifelong arrested development. It's a bit like the 40-Year-Old Virgin with the characters more in the realm of plausibility and less of the ribald humor. The supporting cast of comedic character actors is particularly strong, with a good role as a heel for John C. Reilly, and Heche gives one of her better performances in years. Their characters appear, at first glance, to be one-note personalities to elicit cheap laughs, but as the story progresses, one can detect that they are more nuanced and sympathetic. Stephen Root as Tim's boss and Kurtwood Smith (Deep Impact, Citizen Ruth) also give strong defined performances.
Cedar Rapids doesn't outstay its welcome by injecting unnecessary set pieces, but doesn't feel in a rush either -- its easygoing attitude is part of the film's many admirable facets. It could have been crass and forgettable, but ends up being a very sweet and funny low-key film that will grow on and win over audiences in the end.
©2011 Vince Leo