REVIEW: Ed Helms Serves Up Meager Heartland Yuks in Cedar Rapids
Where would indie cinema be without the hopes and dreams and peccadilloes of the little people? In their ordinary fleece pullovers and loud ties? Miguel Arteta's alleged comedy Cedar Rapids was apparently made by, and largely for, people who would never go to a place like Cedar Rapids without saying to their friends with a sneer, "Yeah, Cedar Rapids! Can you believe it?" It's a movie that needs to look down its nose for its laughs, which generally isn't the best place to find them.
Ed Helms plays Tim Lippe, a likable but not particularly charismatic insurance agent working in the town of Brown Valley, Wisconsin. He likes his job, and he has a sex life (he's been trysting with his former junior-high science teacher, played by a predictably no-nonsense, good-natured Sigourney Weaver). Life is good for Tim, but he faces a big challenge when he's asked to attend an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids. His boss, Bill (Stephen Root), entrusts him with making sure that his company retains its coveted "Two Diamond" award, and apparently, godliness plays a very important role in that. To that end, Bill has given Tim a list of fellow agents to avoid, and a list of those who are appropriate to "fellowship with."
When Tim finally arrives in Cedar Rapids (he's never been on a plane before! His hotel room key is -- get this -- a little card!), he learns he'll have not just one but two roommates in his hotel suite: Ronald Wilkes (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.), who is -- get this -- black! That causes Tim a moment of confusion because, well, he just never thought he'd be rooming with a black person. The other roomie is freewheeling, potty-mouthed Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), who blows onto the scene ready to par-tay, wearing a floppy suit and tie bought at Structure circa 1991.
There's a third person ready to rock Tim's little world, a strawberry-blond vixen named Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), who, after bedding the ever-so-innocent Tim after a hard day of insurance-convention-related scavenger hunting and such, solemnly informs him that what happens in Cedar Rapids stays in Cedar Rapids.
Tim has lessons to learn -- Be true to yourself, let your conscience be your guide, and so forth -- and learn them he does, at our expense. Arteta, working from a script by Phil Johnston, doles out the heartland yuks in the most obvious manner possible. Tim, a nondrinker, will develop a taste for cream sherry; he'll cringe when Dean barks at him, "You gotta strap on a set of gourds!"; he'll be appalled when he learns that the special time he spent with Joan isn't going to lead to a long-term committed relationship. Because, you know, he's a sweet guy from what those cruel city folk call flyover country, and people out there just don't know about this stuff.
Obviously, Arteta (whose last movie was the 2009 Youth in Revolt) is drawing caricatures here, and they're so obviously broad that you can't really be offended by them. But they're not particularly entertaining, either. Some of the actors here wear their cardboard roles so lightly that they might make you laugh here and there: Reilly has a stellar moment in which he strides drunkenly into the hotel pool fully clothed, having turned a domed trash-can lid into a makeshift diver's helmet. And the wonderful Alia Shawkat (Whip It, Arrested Development) has a small and rather thankless role as Bree, a hooker who hangs around the conventioneers' hotel. But damned if she doesn't, in her 10 minutes or so of screentime, come off as the most likable, believable presence here. She stares at the eternal naif Tim in disbelief, which is the only appropriate response. Still, her warm, crooked smile tells us she's on his side. She shows him more bemused affection than the movie itself does.
And it just may be that 87 minutes of Ed Helms in a starring role is 86 minutes too many. He makes a suitably sympathetic and funny second or third banana, as he did in The Hangover. His great gift in smaller roles like those may be his lack of vanity: He'll strut around with a tooth knocked out like nobody's business. But in Cedar Rapids, his golly-gosh antics wear thin in the first half-hour. He's too ingratiating, too callow, too damn open-hearted -- a little meanness would have made Tim funnier and more likable, but as it is, he's just a bowling pin you want to knock down. And Cedar Rapids is a gutter ball of a movie.