A classic movie trope involves the innocent dweeb introduced into the unfamiliar world of the cool kids only to be picked on until the end of the film, which is typically when the cool kids are made to realize the dweeb isn’t as dweeby as they took him to be. In fact, shocker alert, the dweeb may in fact be even cooler than those so-called cool kids, or at the very least they all have something in common. Gasp!
Thankfully, director Miguel Arteta’s Cedar Rapids takes this story-telling cliche and goes in the opposite direction, dodging all the pitfalls that would otherwise derail it. The result is a very funny film with a quartet of characters we can all relate to in one way or another.
In this story our dweeb is played by Ed Helms (The Hangover) starring as Tim Lippe, a stereotypical, naive small town insurance agent working for BrownStar Insurance. How naive is he? Well, when Roger (Thomas Lennon), the office hot shot, dies due to an untimely and tragically comedic death, Tim, against all common sense, thinks it was just an accident. Tim still believes Roger lived by the code, which encourages BrownStar agents to lead good natured, God fearing lives, traits that have helped BrownStar win the prestigious Two Diamonds Award for the last two years from the ASMI Sales Convention in Cedar Rapids.
Roger’s death creates a problem for Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root), Tim’s self-centered boss who is now without the smooth-talking face of BrownStar. So not only is Roger dead, he’s disgraced himself and the company and Bill must now figure out who he’s going to send to Cedar Rapids to clear up the rumors and earn the agency its third Two Diamonds Award. Who he’s send is obvious and you would think the comedy that comes as a result would be obvious as well. It is… and it isn’t.
Helms’s performance as Tim walks a fine line between stupid, self-aware and occasionally pitiful, primarily due to the fact he’s a good guy that’s just so uninformed of the world around him you can’t help be feel for sorry him. This is the kind of character trait that can only be taken so far before you begin to feel he’s so stupid he deserves everything that’s coming to him. Thankfully, while Tim occasionally bumps up against the edge of doltish senselessness, he never oversteps the boundary. He’s also surrounded by a strong supporting cast that includes John C. Reilly, Anne Heche and Isiah Whitlock Jr.
It seems like it’s been forever since I’ve seen Heche in a film (I don’t even remember her uncredited role in The Other Guys), and her appearance here is a breath of fresh air. Heche delivers a wholly realized and funny character who lives by the motto “What happens in Cedar Rapids, stays in Cedar Rapids” and she hits it out of the park. Whitlock plays Ronald, a more intelligent offshoot of Helms’s character, though Ronald’s innocence is more of a life choice, unlike Tim who just doesn’t know any better.
Then there’s Reilly. John C. Reilly is known for his string of outrageous and funny characters, but his performance here as Dean “Deanzie” Ziegler is an absolute classic. Foul-mouthed and without a filter, Reilly plays Dean to the hilt, and he’s a guy we’ve all known and met. While his introduction had me thinking he was going to be a barrel full of increasingly tedious racial and sex-fueled jokes, he actually turns out to supply just as much a moral center to the story as his three co-stars.
The story also rings particularly true, at least enough to the point a lot of the outrageous behavior that goes on doesn’t seem too far featched. In what now feels like a past life, I was a salesman for a little over a year and a lot of the behavior on display at the Cedar Rapids sales convention isn’t particularly out of bounds, neither is the lingo. On top of that, first time feature screenwriter Phil Johnston has created characters with flaws not unlike those of you or I. The characters, while sometimes over the top, morally corrupt or downright stupid, remain relatable.
Only once during the film’s short 86-minute running time, did I look upon it as losing a complete grip on its own reality as Tim goes on an out-of-nowhere drug binge. The moment squeezes out a few laughs, but it didn’t fit the movie or characters even though it did offer a solid farewell moment between Tim and a Cedar Rapids resident hooker played by Alia Shawkat (“Arrested Development”).
Overall I got a lot of laughs and a solid sense of friendship and camaraderie out of Cedar Rapids and its characters, but what I appreciated most was that it didn’t single Tim Lippe out as a dweeb to be made fun of. Instead it embraces the flaws in all of its characters and shows that no one of us is better than the other, that we all have something to offer if given the chance. It’s a commendable trait for a rather crass comedy that takes many of its jokes to the edge and has us laughing at frequently lowbrow humor.