A sheltered but sincere small-town insurance salesman is sent to a moral-boundaries-testing conference in Iowa in Cedar Rapids, a sweet comedy starring Ed Helms.
Tim Lippe (Helms) likes doing business in his very small farm community in Wisconsin because he knows people, he trusts people and he feels his job as an insurance salesman is truly helping people’s lives. Perhaps because he’s more substance and less flash, he isn’t quite the crackerjack that some of his fellow salesmen are. But when the agency’s star is killed in a freak accident, boss Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root) sends Tim to the big city — Cedar Rapids, Iowa — for the annual conference where the agency has been winning the coveted Two Diamond award. Tim is told to win another Two Diamond, befriend some fellow agents and, above all, stay away from Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a man who, Bill tells Tim, is a client-poacher. But Dean is so much more — he’s also a loudmouth drunk who has no use for the conference’s religious overtones or the organization’s sanctimonious head Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith). So naturally, when Tim and Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), the mild-mannered man he’s rooming with, are asked to take on a third roommate, who else would it be but Dean Ziegler. Plucky Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche) rounds out their foursome and together the group lives it up in swinging Cedar Rapids.
Cedar Rapids isn’t just the first time Tim has left his small community, it’s the first time he’s ventured out into the world. Back home, he’s dating his former middle school teacher — the now-divorced Mrs. Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver) who keeps insisting that they’re just having a good time but who Tim thinks he’s on the road to marriage with. Tim’s drink of choice is cream sherry and it doesn’t really occur to him why Bree (Alia Shawkat), a woman he meets as he arrives at the hotel, is hanging around asking men for a cigarette and if they want to party. Five, maybe eight years ago, this role would have been played by Steve Carell and probably for bigger laughs. But I like the way Helms does it. You don’t see him as some sort of movie-creation giant baby-man. He is a sweet guy, who genuinely believes all the things people say about friendship and fairness and isn’t shocked to find the world isn’t entirely like that but is disappointed to find it in people he likes and in himself. It would be easy to describe this as a kind of 90-minute version of The Office but that doesn’t quite get at some of the movie’s nuances — from the sweetness of Helms to the sadness of Heche’s character and the restrained oddball-ness of Reilly.
Cedar Rapids is a movie that takes the time to make people and settings just a bit unattractive, which helps sell the movie as a real story rather than just a Hollywood comedy. You get a combination of bad hairstyles and unflattering clothes that help root this movie in, if not Cedar Rapids specifically, then the vast schlubby majority of the country as opposed to the sleek and stylish cities. And this physical blah-ness helps to reinforce the everydayness of the people as well — everyday and ordinary but also richly different as we learn their personalities and flaws and goofiness.
Cedar Rapids is the sweetest, dorkiest movie I’ve seen in a while and exactly the little comedy gem I hoped it would be.
Rated R for crude and sexual content, language and drug use. Directed by Miguel Arteta and written by Phil Johnston, Cedar Rapids is an hour and 26 minutes long and is distributed by Fox Searchlight.