What happens in Iowa stays in Iowa
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, February 11, 2011
Ed Helms doesn’t lose a tooth in “Cedar Rapids.” But even in light of that small dental detail, his protagonist bears more than a passing resemblance to the good-hearted square he played in “The Hangover,” the ribald, action-fueled comedy that catapulted all its players into the unexpected stratosphere a few years ago. And apparently, what happens in Vegas indeed stays in Vegas — until it migrates to Iowa, where in the course of a wild conventioneering weekend, Helms’s Candide-like character learns the ways of drugs and alcohol, infidelity, lesbian weddings and the myriad corrupting seductions of Sodom-on-the-Cedar.
When insurance salesman Tim Lippe (Helms) gets the nod to leave his small Wisconsin hometown to attend a crucial confab in the title city, the setup seems glib beyond repair: Tim’s a wide-eyed eternal adolescent, convinced that his carnal affair with his former seventh-grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver) is a “pre-engagement” and utterly beside himself at the prospect of taking his first plane ride.
Though “Cedar Rapids” gets off to a bumpy start, eventually the story settles in smoothly after Tim discovers that his hotel roommates will be Ronald “Ronimal” Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), apparently the first African American Tim has laid eyes on, and Dean “Deanzie” Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a foul-mouthed boor who has an off-color joke for every occasion. Taking it all in one-of-the-boys stride is Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), whose own code of the road doesn’t quite account for Tim’s disarming sincerity. “You realize you just made it sound cool to be an insurance salesman,” Joan says after Tim delivers a moving soliloquy on helping people through the worst moments of their lives.
Coolness notwithstanding, it’s Reilly’s Deanzie — a vulgar bundle of id run irrepressibly, inappropriately amok — who emerges as the most dynamic character. Tim, for his part, stays resolutely nerd-like, gasping delightedly at the miracles of credit-key cards, atrium swimming pools and other signifiers of big-city sophistication. It would all be too twee and condescending were it not for Reilly’s unhinged exuberance and the tonal control and compassion director Miguel Arteta brings to Phil Johnston’s script. Like too many movies set in the bland, clueless Midwest of filmmakers’ imaginations, “Cedar Rapids” wants to have it both ways — mocking Tim’s naivete one moment, idealizing it the next — but eventually the movie proves as disarming as Tim himself, delivering a vote for humanism that proves satisfying if not entirely earned.
Like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton before him, Helms plays a lamb trotting hopefully through the abattoir, blessedly unaware of the blades hanging just above his head. Unlike his predecessors, Helms’s gifts still seem better suited for the small, situation-based set pieces he has done on “The Office” and “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” Tim may be the nominal hero of “Cedar Rapids,” but it’s Deanzie, that crude and knavish sprite, who makes it worth visiting.
Contains sexual content, profanity and drug use.