Wednesday, September 7, 2011

It Came From "Cedar Rapids"

Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is an insurance agent in the tiny town of Brown Valley, Wisconsin, who is for lack of a better term, a dork. He's sleeping with one of his former grade school teachers, who he still habitually calls Mrs. Vanderhei instead of Macy (Sigourney Weaver). He looks up to his boss Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root) and idolizes senior salesman Roger Lemke (Thomas Lennon). Well, that is until Roger dies in an auto-erotic asphyxiation accident, leaving Tim to fill in at an important regional conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

After his first ride on an airplane, Tim needs to cozy up to Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith), who is primarily responsible for giving out the prestigious Two Diamonds Award that Roger brought home three times in a row. He is also warned to stay away from Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), party animal and all around bad influence. So who does Tim end up rooming with? Ziegler of course, along with an affable African American insurance agent Ron Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr). Tim also unwittingly befriends a prostitute, Bree (Alia Shawkat), and is tempted by the charms of another conference attendee, Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche).

I went into "Cedar Rapids" trying not to look for similarities to "The Forty-Year-Old Virgin," which also stars a "Daily Show" alum playing a sheltered and naive, but good-natured guy, who finds himself on a journey of self-discovery. This didn't turn out to be much of a problem, because "Cedar Rapids" is so much smaller scale, and has much more limited ambitions. Despite its indie roots, it feels like a very good network sitcom at times. By this I mean that it has a premise centered around a colorful collection of characters, everyone is extremely likable even when they're being jerks to each other, and there is a sense of the whole story existing in this heightened version of reality where the women are all slightly too pretty and the characters from Wisconsin and Minnesota are a tad too folksy. There's even a credits sequence that could function nicely as an ending tag. Cut out the cursing, chop it into quarters, and "Cedar Rapids" could fit in snugly between "30 Rock" and "The Office."

In spite of its limited scope, the film is perfectly pleasant, enjoyable watch, and the performances are a lot of fun. Ed Helms, in his first starring role, proves capable of carrying a picture by himself. Tim Lippe is inexperienced and uninformed rather than repressed or developmentally arrested in any sense, and Helms is great at channeling moments of confusion and hesitation, which are exaggerated, but not too overt. When he encounters Ron, the first African-American Tim has ever met, he panics momentarily, eyes bulging and stonefaced. You can see him mentally processing a lengthy list of unnamed fears before realizing the lovable Ron is a kindred spirit, and letting his guard down. It soon becomes apparent that Tim's defining quality isn't his naivete or innate decency, but his ability to adapt his worldview to new information very quickly. Sometimes he needs to freak out first, though, and when he does Helms really sells it.

The script is great about parsing out good moments to each member of the ensemble. John C. Reilly, whose presence might have overwhelmed the film, instead sees Dean Ziegler's aggressive swaggering undercut by several moments of inspired silliness. Isiah Whitlock Jr gets a running in-joke about "The Wire" that pays off spectacularly. I didn't recognize Anne Heche at first, and I suspect this is her most likable role in ages. Stephen Root and Kutwood Smith are incapable of not being awesome. Even Sigourney Weaver's Macy, with a grand total of two scenes, comes off as a remarkably well-rounded character. I think the only weak link is Bree the prostitute, who probably looked like a good idea on paper, but turns out to be more of a plot contrivance and a loose end. On the other hand, I didn't even notice that she'd disappeared from the last act of the film until well after it was over.

There's no getting around the fact that "Cedar Rapids" is a small film of small pleasures, and though it does nearly everything right, it just doesn't leave much lasting impact. However, my hope is that it will be a stepping stone to better things for everyone involved, especially Ed Helms. He's shown he's capable of much more than filling out the ranks on "The Office," or "The Daily Show," and I look forward to whatever project he lands in next.

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