Miguel Arteta’s Cedar Rapids is a brisk comedy about real people with real flaws. Sometimes these flaws are so brazenly laid bare that the film threatens to alienate its audience, but somehow it keeps winning them back over with its disarming and uproarious humor.
Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is an extremely unworldly innocent who sells insurance in his hometown and is “sort of pre-engaged” to an older woman (Sigourney Weaver) who used to be his seventh-grade teacher. The unfortunate early demise of his company’s top salesman due to autoerotic asphyxiation opens up an opportunity for Tim. He’s sent to a big convention in Cedar Rapids to defend the company’s prestigious Two Diamonds award. Of course when he gets there, intent on soberly pursuing his business, he finds that the convention is a thinly disguised bacchanal, and his fellow conventioneers a bunch of womanizing, drunken louts.
It would be so easy for this movie to go in one of two ways: it could have a saintly Tim convert the others to his side, or more standard for a comedy, the rascals could totally change everything about Tim. Instead, Arteta and the screenwriters wisely take a more nuanced and realistic approach. Tim opens himself up to the world and becomes more accepting of other people, and does it because these people that scared him so much accepted him for who he was.
The script is excellent in this regard, but the performances sell it masterfully. John C. Reilly once again demonstrates his incredible range. I think he could be believable in almost any role at this point. Anne Heche is given a very difficult role to play in that she has to remain likable despite doing something I’m sure most audience members would find tremendously unlikeable. It threw me out of the movie a bit, but eventually I realized it was part of the movie’s central theme, that people are flawed but that their flaws don’t define them. Isaiah Whitlock, Jr. turns a solid performance as a straight-arrow with a surprising appreciation for The Wire (an in-joke since Whitlock was a cast member on that show.) The supporting cast is filled with dependable character actors like Stephen Root, Alia Shawkat and Kurtwood Smith (the dad on That ‘70s Show).
The humor of the film is all the stronger for coming from so many different areas. There is a lot of physical humor verging on the slapstick, and there are plenty of awkward, almost-have-to-look-away type laughs. All in all it’s a warmly funny movie that refreshingly features characters and elements that you don’t often see in mainstream movies, without any of that smug indie movie feel. I hope it finds a wider audience on DVD and becomes the cult hit it deserves to be.