In Cedar Rapids, Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), a small town insurance salesman with a heart of gold, is the picture of Midwestern naiveté—a man, as his boss says, who was going places and then never did. He’s never flown on a plane before, doesn’t drink, and wears a sweater vest over a turtleneck when he goes out at night. So when his boss sends him to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for a regional insurance convention, it’s a monumental challenge.
This premise, of course, is pretty familiar. As most viewers will probably guess, Lippe faces temptations in the big city and returns home triumphant. But Miguel Arteta, the film’s director, keeps Cedar Rapids quirky enough to make it somehow seem fresh. Lippe carries butterscotch candies around in his pocket, but he’s also sleeping with his recently divorced grade-school teacher (Sigourney Weaver, in a marvelous bit of casting). He’s only sent to the conference when the co-worker who’s supposed to go, a closeted sexual deviant, accidentally strangles himself with a belt.
Cedar Rapids is Ed Helms’s first leading role, and he holds the slightly screwball comedy together. Like Owen Wilson and Hugh Grant, Ed Helms tends to play variations of Ed Helms no matter the role; his character in Cedar Rapids echoes his roles in The Hangover and on The Office. As Lippe, though, Helms takes his willfully innocent demeanor to a new level. His lines—”I’ll dream of you in my heart,” he tells Weaver’s character on the phone—are painfully earnest, but he manages to pull them off.
Upon arriving in Cedar Rapids, Lippe befriends three conference veterans, and the character actors who portray them make the movie worth seeing. John C. Reilly plays Dean Ziegler—”Deansie,” as he prefers to be called—a boorish drunkard ostracized by the conference’s Bible-thumping leadership. Isiah Whitlock Jr. backs him up as Ronald Wilkes (“The Ronimal”), a mild-mannered Black insurance salesman who, as he tells everyone he meets, enjoys community theatre and HBO’s The Wire.
Along with Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), a mother of two who lets loose once a year in Cedar Rapids, the two men try to coax Lippe out of his shell. His responses are often just weird enough to be hilarious; when the trio urges Lippe to join them in a round of shots, he orders an ounce and a half of sherry. The jokes don’t aim too high—at one point, a drunken Deansie puts a brass garbage can lid on his head and mimes R2-D2—but Reilly and Heche are talented enough to pull them off with panache.
Ultimately, Cedar Rapids works because of its odd juxtaposition of screwball comedy and scenes that are serious, innocent and, at times, bitter. Lippe is sweet enough to Ostrowski-Fox, for instance, that it’s a shock when Deansie asks if he’s been “eatin’ the canned tuna from the bottom shelf.” The insurance convention itself turns out be a something of a snake pit, with scheming factions and backroom deals. “Now you see how dark this place is,” Deansie tells Lippe as the convention comes to a close. Like so many lines in the movie, you get the sense that he’s only half-joking.