Cedar Rapids is something of a more modest, more gentle and — I would argue — more likable answer to 2009 comedy megahit The Hangover. Like The Hangover, Cedar Rapids is a crude comedy starring the buttoned-down Ed Helms as one of four "friends" living it up away from home. But instead of the wild world of a Las Vegas bachelor party weekend, Cedar Rapids depicts the steam blown off at a regional insurance convention in its title Iowa town.
Helms moves to the center here as Tim Lippe, a single, junior salesman for small-town Wisconsin's Brownstone Insurance who is dispatched to an annual convention in Cedar Rapids after the company's top salesman dies in scandalous fashion. Tim is charged with bringing home the conference's coveted "Two Diamonds Award," which requires making a pitch to organization president Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith) that the company is "a good outfit, a good Christian outfit."
Though Tim spends his days protecting his clients from "an unpredictable world of risk-filled uncertainty," he is not exactly wise in the ways of the world himself. And this first business trip introduces unsettling new elements to Tim's confined life — hotel clerks suspiciously asking for his credit card, unusually friendly women hanging around the lobby, a boorish roommate (John C. Reilly's suburban Wisconsinite Dean Ziegler).
Reilly's Ziegler is the film's back-slapping, trash-talking comic centerpiece. When he uses the word "tits" as a modifier signaling approval and admiration — "That guy was tits as a rep" — I had a flashback to some of the small-town — male — upper-Midwesterners I met in college. Reilly does wondrous things with a trashcan lid and a hotel pool. But stealing the show here are fellow conventioneers Anne Heche and Isiah Whitlock Jr. of The Wire (he played Sen. Clay "Sheeeet" Davis and gets a couple of choice inside jokes about the show here). Heche's Omaha-based agent is a working mom who loves the chance to be one of the guys. Whitlock's Ronald — dubbed "Ronimal" by conference buddies — is a confirmed bachelor from rural Minnesota who enjoys antiquing and community theater.
Directed by Miguel Arteta (Chuck & Buck, Youth in Revolt), Cedar Rapids is entirely undistinguished visually — kind of cruddy-looking, really — but is comfortable in its own skin. It goes for gonzo laughs involving sex, drugs, and other predictably outré subjects but never loses track of its core energy — the fire-drill enthusiasm and perhaps temporary bonhomie of nice, normal people using the business trip as a vacation from their home lives.
Cedar Rapids mines its regional setting for humor, but Arteta doesn't overdo the local-yokel stuff in the manner of Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman) or the Coen brothers (Fargo). When one character expresses a desire to hit the convention meet-and-greet in the hotel bar — "I'm going down to Horizon's, where the action is!" — Cedar Rapids gets a satiric jolt from the setting but also ratifies the enthusiasm. The ultimate mode here is one of affection. The film likes and respects these characters. And so will you.
Opening Friday, March 11th