Cedar Rapids is one of the most adorable movies featuring drugs, alcohol, infidelity, prostitution, bribery and a fleeting moment of sidelong racism that you'll ever see. It's a pint of comic debauchery that goes down smooth and doesn't leave you with a nasty Hangover.
However, it's also a film with a bit of an identity crisis. Director Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl; Youth in Revolt) mines laughs by juxtaposing clichés of aw-shucks Midwestern mores with the universal ugliness of human greed and frailty. Obviously, decadence and moral decay are not strictly bicoastal phenomena. But, in exposing the underbelly of flyover country for laughs, Arteta and writer Phil Johnson—this is his first produced script—uneasily straddle the line between satire and snark.
Following the untimely death of his all-star co-worker, insurance salesman Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is required to venture beyond the confines of his small Wisconsin town to the bright lights of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for the annual AMSI insurance conference. There, Tim must salvage his company's reputation by again securing the valued two-diamond award of excellence.
Nave to the point of delusional, Tim is a Goody Two-shoes who sports sweater vests and never drinks alcohol, but at the same time is having a fling with his former seventh-grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver), with whom Tim declares he is "pre-engaged." He has never flown on a plane, stayed in a hotel, drunk in a bar or, apparently, been in the company of a professional African-American like his convention roommate, Ronald (a marvelous Isiah Whitlock Jr., best known as state Sen. Clay Davis on The Wire).
Tim also finds himself teamed with AMSI regular Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a boozy blowhard holding a deep cynicism for his profession and the faith-based values being foisted by his fellow conventioneers. Together, Ronald and Dean act as the angel and devil on Tim's unsophisticated shoulders, guiding him into—and out of—the seedy side of town, the insurance game and the reality of how the two-diamond award is won.
Helms and Reilly's comedic timing and energy carry Cedar Rapids through its more mundane moments. Still, Reilly's already played the loudmouth lout in Walk Hard and twice alongside Will Ferrell, and you need look no further than Thursday night TV to see Helms as a Lippe-like nebbish each week on The Office.
The film's revelation is Anne Heche, an actress whose ability has always been overshadowed by her tumultuous personal life. Here, she plays Joan, a married insurance agent who uses the annual convention as a weekend-long escape from the pressures of marriage and motherhood. Heche fashions the most three-dimensional character in Cedar Rapids, a woman who is at once sexy, sincere and world-weary. The rapport she develops with Helms casts her as a cow-town counterpart to Vera Farmiga's character in Up in the Air.
Although they form an unlikely cadre, the four leads are regular people bound by their shared aspiration for greater glory and a diversion from the stifling demands of the everyday. For them, and many, Cedar Rapids is less a place than a state of mind.