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'Rapids'-fire humor

Ed Helms, Anne Heche and John C. Reilly excel in a bright, brisk comedy

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A small-town guy has a big-city adventure — well, it’s abigger city than the one he’s from, anyway — in “Cedar Rapids,” a brisk, livelyand often hilarious yarn with a bit of a bite to it. That shouldn’t be toosurprising, considering it was directed by Miguel Arteta, a filmmaker whodelights in taking seemingly conventional set-ups in unexpected directions.

Arteta first attracted attention for his collaborations withwriter Mike White, the unnerving 2000 sleeper “Chuck & Buck” and the 2002comedy-drama “The Good Girl,” in which Jennifer Aniston seized a rareopportunity to prove her mettle as an actress. “Chuck,” which initially seemedlike a story about an obnoxious, immature man (White) determined to reconnectwith a childhood friend (Chris Weitz), delved into the shadowy side of malebonding and the after-effects of adolescent sexual experimentation. “Girl” tooka situation straight out of an old Sally Field flick — long-suffering dollar-storecashier and neglected wife Justine (Aniston) entertains fantasies of runningaway with a self-styled rebel (Jake Gyllenhaal) — and gave it a bittersweetspin: Justine eventually realizes even a raw deal is better than no deal atall.

In contrast, Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), the main man of “CedarRapids,” is reasonably happy with his life. He’s a successful, well-liked agentat BrownStar Insurance (“We insure your dreams” is the company motto) in BrownValley, 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 conventionin Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Tim’s girlfriend, Macy, has to stay home, which may beall 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’sseventh-grade teacher long before she became his paramour.

That idea could be treated as a smutty joke, but there’s no mean-spiritednessor cruel condescension in Phil Johnston’s screenplay. Admittedly, Tim is partialto unflattering sweaters that might have come from a J.C. Penney close-out salein 1977 and he’s perhaps a bit unworldly (when he’s pushed to order a shot atthe 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 withgawky, geeky mannerisms and expressions. His smartly modulated performancenever allows Tim to look idiotic, even when he’s making terrible choices andsaying slightly ridiculous things.

Bizarre, debauched things go on as the conventioneers spiralout of control, yet even in the movie’s most ribald moments there’s anunexpected undercurrent of tenderness, a tone that is most noticeable in thescenes in which Tim struggles with his mixed feelings regarding Joan (anextremely sharp Anne Heche, making the most of her best role in years), who’smarried but eager to make merry, if you get the picture. She’s a well-seasonedveteran of the insurance wars who welcomes the opportunity to break in the newguy; Tim is shocked by her bawdiness at first, but is even more startled torealize that behind the party-princess attitude is a bright, gentle andself-aware woman. “Sometimes, a gal just needs a vacation from who she reallyis,” Joan explains. The movie doesn’t write off Tim as a rube and it doesn’tbrand 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 bysurprise. 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’sheard about the hard-drinking, rule-breaking Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), buteventually yields to Dean’s vulgar vivaciousness and pseudo-mysticalphilosophy.

“If you wanna survive, you’ve either gotta fight the tiger,or dance with the tiger,” Dean insists as he leads Tim into what constitutesthe fast lane in Cedar Rapids. Tim emerges from the convention with a newperspective and broadened horizons. Viewers will leave the theater with thegleeful high spirits that come from watching a smart, slightly warped film thattakes its comedy seriously.

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