Ed Helms, Anne Heche and John C. Reilly excel in a bright, brisk comedy
A small-town guy has a big-city adventure — well, it’s a bigger city than the one he’s from, anyway — in “Cedar Rapids,” a brisk, lively and often hilarious yarn with a bit of a bite to it. That shouldn’t be too surprising, considering it was directed by Miguel Arteta, a filmmaker who delights in taking seemingly conventional set-ups in unexpected directions.
Arteta first attracted attention for his collaborations with writer Mike White, the unnerving 2000 sleeper “Chuck & Buck” and the 2002 comedy-drama “The Good Girl,” in which Jennifer Aniston seized a rare opportunity to prove her mettle as an actress. “Chuck,” which initially seemed like a story about an obnoxious, immature man (White) determined to reconnect with a childhood friend (Chris Weitz), delved into the shadowy side of male bonding and the after-effects of adolescent sexual experimentation. “Girl” took a situation straight out of an old Sally Field flick — long-suffering dollar-store cashier and neglected wife Justine (Aniston) entertains fantasies of running away with a self-styled rebel (Jake Gyllenhaal) — and gave it a bittersweet spin: Justine eventually realizes even a raw deal is better than no deal at all.
In contrast, Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), the main man of “Cedar Rapids,” is reasonably happy with his life. He’s a successful, well-liked agent at BrownStar Insurance (“We insure your dreams” is the company motto) in Brown Valley, Wisc., the town in which he grew up. Tim has never been one to wander, so he’s disoriented when his boss (Stephen Root) dispatches him to a convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Tim’s girlfriend, Macy, has to stay home, which may be all for the best.
“Did you ever used to look at me and think dirty thoughts?” Tim asks Macy, as they cuddle in bed. Macy responds with a look of disbelief. “You were 12,” she says, dryly — yes, Macy (Sigourney Weaver) was Tim’s seventh-grade teacher long before she became his paramour.
That idea could be treated as a smutty joke, but there’s no mean-spiritedness or cruel condescension in Phil Johnston’s screenplay. Admittedly, Tim is partial to unflattering sweaters that might have come from a J.C. Penney close-out sale in 1977 and he’s perhaps a bit unworldly (when he’s pushed to order a shot at the bar, Tim opts for cream sherry). And yet he’s not a dismissible dork. Arteta and Johnston don’t frame him that way, nor does Helms go overboard with gawky, geeky mannerisms and expressions. His smartly modulated performance never allows Tim to look idiotic, even when he’s making terrible choices and saying slightly ridiculous things.
Bizarre, debauched things go on as the conventioneers spiral out of control, yet even in the movie’s most ribald moments there’s an unexpected undercurrent of tenderness, a tone that is most noticeable in the scenes in which Tim struggles with his mixed feelings regarding Joan (an extremely sharp Anne Heche, making the most of her best role in years), who’s married but eager to make merry, if you get the picture. She’s a well-seasoned veteran of the insurance wars who welcomes the opportunity to break in the new guy; Tim is shocked by her bawdiness at first, but is even more startled to realize that behind the party-princess attitude is a bright, gentle and self-aware woman. “Sometimes, a gal just needs a vacation from who she really is,” Joan explains. The movie doesn’t write off Tim as a rube and it doesn’t brand Joan as a tramp, either; everyone involved seems to embrace the idea that “nice people” can have wild sides, too.
Tim’s roommates in his hotel suite also take him by surprise. Although Ronald Wilkes (the delightfully droll Isiah Whitlock Jr.) speaks and looks like the son of James Earl Jones, he turns out to be unthreatening, unpretentious and extremely resourceful. Tim tries to heed the warnings he’s heard about the hard-drinking, rule-breaking Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), but eventually yields to Dean’s vulgar vivaciousness and pseudo-mystical philosophy.
“If you wanna survive, you’ve either gotta fight the tiger, or dance with the tiger,” Dean insists as he leads Tim into what constitutes the fast lane in Cedar Rapids. Tim emerges from the convention with a new perspective and broadened horizons. Viewers will leave the theater with the gleeful high spirits that come from watching a smart, slightly warped film that takes its comedy seriously.