The talent level in “Cedar Rapids”‘ is all out of proportion to the quality of the material. The screenplay is thoroughly forgettable but just listen to this cast: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Stephen Root, Kurtwood Smith, Alia Shawkat, and Sigourney Weaver. Their director is Miguel Arteta, who made the supremely squirmy “Chuck & Buck” and last year’s underrated Michael Cera vehicle “Youth in Revolt.” How did so many wonderful actors and a smart filmmaker all wind up attached to such a nothing script? This is clearly a low budget film. They’re not doing it for the paycheck. Do they all share the same agent or something?
Helms stars as Tim Lippe, a naïve insurance salesman from Brown Valley, Wisconsin. After Tim’s firm’s star salesman dies, he’s sent to replace him at an important insurance convention in Cedar Rapids. Tim’s boss BIll (Root) needs him to win the coveted “2 Diamonds Award” for outstanding insurance company, but Tim is totally unprepared for this assignment. He’s never left Brown Valley, much less flown on an airplane, much less been to a big bad city like Cedar Rapids. So he’ll need to bear down. That means focusing on his work and avoiding infamous convention wild man Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) at all costs.
BIll warns Tim to avoid the hard-partying Dean, so naturally a plot contrivance makes them roommates instead. And thank goodness it does because Reilly immediately brightens a heretofore bland movie with his live-wire presence. His Dean is pure irrepressible id, the perfect devil on the shoulder for a guy like Tim, who’s lived his whole life by a code of asceticism you usually only see practiced by clergymen and solitary astronauts on decades-long expeditions to the Planet of the Apes. Arteta also used Reilly to equally good effect in his 2002 film “The Good Girl.” In both cases he plays the role of the character too charming to be despicable. The funniest moment in “Cedar Rapids” isn’t provided by a witty joke or a clever line of dialogue. It’s a look Reilly gives when he’s caught by someone with a trashcan lid on his head. This guy doesn’t just steal the movie; he rips it off and pirates it on the Internet.
“Cedar Rapids”‘ corporate satire isn’t especially sharp, but the mood throughout is consistently warm and likable. Helms makes Tim’s extreme innocence charming (if not especially hilarious) and, just like in “The Hangover,” he remains the sort of nerdy actor audiences enjoy watching get defiled. Anne Heche is the one in charge of most of the defiling, as another conventioneer who pals around with Dean and third roommate Ronald (Whitlock Jr.) and takes a liking to the new kid on the block. Heche’s good too; charming, flirty, and casual. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed her in a movie this much.
The quest for the 2 Diamonds Award bogs “Cedar Rapids” down with way too many plot twists and character reversals. There’s also a really egregious hooker with a heart of gold who’s also wise beyond her years and gets to enunciate the film’s big point (“We’re all just selling…”). The film is at its best at its simplest, when it gets out of its own way and just lets us endure this very tiresome corporate retreat’s bizarre customs and rituals with that core four — Helms, Heche, Whitlock Jr., and especially Reilly. I’m still not entirely sure what these folks saw in “Cedar Rapids.” Maybe it was just an opportunity to work together. In that sense, they made the most of it.