In “Cedar Rapids,” we meet mild-mannered small-town insurance salesman Tim Lippe (Ed Helms, “The Hangover”), an earnest, naive man who is about to learn the ways of the big city. Sure he’s sleeping with his old junior-high teacher (Sigourney Weaver), but is not prepared for life outside of Brown Valley, Wisconsin.
Yes, he’s going to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for an annual convention of insurance salesmen that culminates in one of them getting the prestigious “Two Diamonds” award — presented to the salesman who best exemplifies integrity and godliness in his profession.
Tim’s firm has received the award three years running, and after the suspicious “accidental” death of the office’s best salesman (he was found in a hotel room with his pants down and a belt around his neck), Tim’s boss (Stephen Root) taps him to take his late colleague’s place at the big boys’ table. Win the award, save the office. Don’t, and, well, you’re probably fired.
And a tall table it is indeed, as Tim meets — gasp! — a black man, Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and the man he was warned to stay away from — the bombastic douchebag (and rumored client poacher) Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly). Of course, circumstances bring them together and things get a little wacky.
Tim also meets a prostitute named Bree (Alia Shawkat) and brazen party girl Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche) and soon finds himself spiraling downward into recesses of excess and debauchery he’s never even imagined.
Helms dances around the line between overplaying Tim’s sheltered social ineptitude and remaining a believable, relatable character, as do Reilly and Whitlock. They are playing caricatures, but there’s never a moment that descends into ridiculousness.
Reilly’s shenanigans are mostly frat boy-gone-wild type stuff, so they are funny but not outside the realm of possibility in the real world, which adds a layer of reality to the movie. His highlights include him asking a colleague talking to a woman if he’s “getting a little honey on his stinger” and, as he’s hugging Ronald, asking Tim, “What’s the matter, you’ve never seen a chocolate/vanilla love sandwich before?”
But director Miguel Arteta maintains a precarious comedic balancing act, keeping things from going over the top without holding back the laughs. In a film like this, that’s a plus, as too much ridiculousness becomes the enemy for comedies of this ilk.
Things lag just a bit when the plot comes back into play, and a development revolving around the award late in the movie distracts from the laughs, albeit just a touch.
One of my colleagues joked that this was the best film of the year thus far. “Cedar Rapids” perhaps isn’t a great film by any means and won’t likely be a blip on my Top 10 list by the end of the year, but I really can’t argue with that assessment. It’s a solid comedy that at times teeters on the brink of brilliance but is always at least workmanlike and funny.