March 18 2013 12:00 AM

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

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

“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.