Looking For Chaos, Relaxation and Laughs? Take a Trip to “Cedar Rapids”


Published: February 16, 2011

The ads for “Cedar Rapids” make it look like another “Superbad” or “The Hangover,” but instead it is the most charming comedy since “The Kids Are All Right.” It’s a movie that considers its subjects human beings instead of stock figures or sideshow freaks. The rude humor is nicely proportionate to affecting performances and surprisingly underplayed scenes.

Ed Helms plays an insurance agent out of his element in “Cedar Rapids.” (Lionel Hahn/Abaca PresS/MCT)

The lead character is Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), an insurance agent chosen to represent his company at an expo in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Kudos to writer Phil Johnston for not picking somewhere expected like New York or Chicago.) It’s his first trip outside his conservative Wisconsin hometown, and he’s woefully uneducated about the outside world. He falls into the seemingly wrong company of uncouth fools (John C. Reilly and Anne Heche), and their weekend together becomes the wakeup call of his life.

“Cedar Rapids,” which is currently in limited release, has a perfect length at only 86 minutes. Nothing feels too long or extraneous, and everything has a purpose. For example, there’s a sequence in which Tim follows a hooker to a dangerous party. It initially feels like a detour, but it suits the plot. It gets the audience laughing again after a couple of unfavorable turns for Tim, and it happens when Tim tries to cheer himself up, which as we all know is an opportunity for trouble. All of these scenes and sequences are timed concisely, enough so that we are still given room for a few brief, almost unnecessary shots that helpfully transition us from the tone of one scene to the tone of the next.

Johnston, director Michel Arteta and the actors collectively keep “Cedar Rapids” from becoming overblown in any capacity. This movie could have been extremely filthy in the comedy or horribly mushy in its sympathy, but each plot point gets the right amount of vulgarity, modesty or pathos. One scene near the end recalls the final scene of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but only in action and not in presentation. It largely happens offscreen, and it is not given triumphant music or exaggerated reactions from the actors. It is a simple and happy win for the good guys instead of sentimentality that would not suit a crude comedy.

Helms is the MVP of this movie. His Tim is juvenile but no simpleton. The character is a man who understands what adults are and plays the part of an adult well, but he still has his feet in the sandbox. His humor lies in how much his naiveté is contrasted with his promising maturation. This is a huge relief after being subjected to insufferable morons like Steve Carell in “Dinner for Schmucks” or Seth Rogen in “The Green Hornet.” Helms has done great supporting work in “The Hangover” and on “The Office,” and I expect this movie will bring him more well-deserved leading roles.

Reilly as Tim’s suitemate, Dean, admirably keeps his character from being a grotesque lout. His performance channels John Candy to create a fellow whose lewdness is as much a mask as it is a lifestyle. Dean’s own problems are not resolved in the slightest, but Reilly and Johnston give them enough attention that we can understand and identify with his character as he helps Tim swerve in and out of trouble. The character who could have been the most irritating becomes one of the most likeable, as well as the funniest.

“Cedar Rapids” certainly is not a great comedy. Some of the risqué humor (including Sigourney Weaver’s role as Tim’s promiscuous former teacher) is awkward despite its role in the story. But there are too many positive qualities in this movie to let those downsides overwhelm any of the merriment. It’s as amiable as it is undisciplined, and it just plain makes you smile.