Fresh from Sundance, Miguel Arteta’s amiable Cedar Rapids is a mild comedy of embarrassment, set in the dark heart of Middle America and starring sitcom secondario Ed Helms (The Office’s obnoxious angry salesman Andy Bernard) as Tim Lippe, a prematurely middle-aged man-child. Taking an airplane for the first time in his life, the country mouse goes to town: As the most idealistic insurance salesman in Brown River, Wisconsin, Lippe is dispatched by his dyspeptic boss to rep the company at an annual convention in Iowa’s second city, Cedar Rapids.
Do the bright lights bedazzle this teetotaling paradigm of cheerful repression—a big bland hunk of cheese with a ruglike coiffure and toothy, constricted grin? Not quite the 40-year-old virgin that his TV colleague Steve Carell played in 2005, Helm’s nicey-nice Lippe lives out a 12-year-old’s Oedipal fantasy, enjoying a weekly matinee with his old junior high school teacher Mrs. Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver). Still, he’s naïve enough to mistake the solicitation of the corn-fed hooker lurking outside Cedar Rapids’ generic convention hotel for simple friendliness, and sufficiently lacking in savoir faire to be startled speechless upon discovering that he’s bunking with a black man (Isaiah Whitlock Jr., playing against his part on The Wire), who appears to be even more square than he.
Far worse from the standpoint of Lippe’s moral code, the third roomie turns out to be the playboy of the Midwestern world: Dean “Deanzie” Ziegler (John C. Reilly). An irrepressible, loudmouthed vulgarian against whom Lippe has been specifically warned, Deanzie has no compunction with regard to taking a nip at breakfast while the rest of the convened insurance salesmen are holding hands to say grace under the direction of their self-righteous president Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith); like everyone else at the convention, Deanzie communicates in well-worn clichés, although his are a toxic cocktail of sexual innuendo and insinuating barstool bonhomie. (Reilly, whose face here resembles a flayed chunk of tandoori chicken, revels as the designated tempter in the convention’s positive-thinking, officially Christian paradise.)
With every other joke based on Lippe’s reactions or the reactions those elicit (and the rest based on Helgesson’s hypocritical bromides), Cedar Rapids is something of an extended workplace ensemble-com. It’s actually less discomfiting than either Chuck & Buck or The Good Girl, the cartoonish pair of mad-pash character studies that Arteta directed from Mike White’s scripts in the early ’00s. For all his inchoate yearnings, Lippe never entirely loses control; neither does the movie’s most emotionally complicated character, Anne Heche’s insurance-selling good-time gal, with whom Lippe finds himself partnered in the convention’s get-acquainted scavenger hunt. Their date escalates from Japanese food to crashing a lesbian wedding to drunkenly jumping in the hotel pool, and more. The humiliating spectacle of male infantilism peaks with Lippe’s paralyzed morning-after episode, replete with hysterical phone call to Mrs. Vanderhei.
Time to man up. “Welcome to the jungle, Timbo,” Deanzie congratulates Lippe when the Brown River innocent realizes that not everything in Cedar Rapids is as kosher as it might seem. The insurance man’s education—which, as a bonus to the viewer, includes one last crystal-meth bacchanal—makes for some lively farce before the obligatory cringe-inducing Capra-worthy closer.