If there is justice in the world, Ed Helms will soon be a comedy star whose name above the title sells a movie all by itself. A veteran of “The Daily Show,” “The Office,” and “The Hangover” (plus its impending sequel), Helms is a master of lovable, slightly square awkwardness, and there’s room for him at the top. “Cedar Rapids” probably is not the film that will do it for him, but it’s a step in the right direction, a reasonably successful attempt to capitalize on Helms’ skills.
He plays Tim Lippe, an insurance agent in a small Wisconsin town who must attend a convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where a prestigious award will be bestowed upon a deserving member of the American Society of Mutual Insurers. The central joke of the film is that to Tim Lippe — a rube who wears Dockers and sweater vests and has never been on an airplane or even stayed in a hotel — Cedar Rapids is the BIG CITY.
At the convention he meets Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a jovial and harmless fellow, and Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a notorious bad boy and troublemaker, at least as far as insurance agents go. Tim’s boss back home (Stephen Root) warned him about Ziegler’s reckless ways. Meanwhile, Joan (Anne Heche), a seasoned veteran of the insurance business and its annual conferences, takes a shine to Tim and helps him break out of his shell.
Much of the film’s plot concerns itself with Tim’s efforts to secure the award for his agency. For some reason this means he must kiss up to the president of the A.M.S.I. (played by Kurtwood Smith), who evidently determines the winner based on which insurance agency is the most decent, moral, and Christian. I don’t know what kind of sense that makes, but there it is.
The screenplay, by Phil Johnston (his first feature), was developed with Helms in mind for the lead role, and indeed with Helms’ participation in the brainstorming process. It’s no wonder, then, that it plays to Helms’ strengths. But the story takes Tim’s naivete to implausible extremes, and the comedy suffers. For example, he is unaware that the sultry young woman (Alia Shawkat) standing outside the hotel is a prostitute; in fact, he seems unaware of the very idea of prostitutes. He’s like a slightly smarter version of Forrest Gump sometimes, which isn’t nearly as funny as someone who’s gullible in believable ways. The director, Miguel Arteta, has overseen better protagonists, in films like “Chuck & Buck” and “Youth in Revolt.”
Nonetheless, Helms sells it with his earnestness and charm, and John C. Reilly is a good foil as the naughty Dean Ziegler. (Rare is the comedy that is not improved by the presence of John C. Reilly.) Sigourney Weaver is somewhat wasted in a small role as the older woman Tim’s been sleeping with back home, but in general the supporting cast (which also includes Thomas Lennon and Mike Birbiglia) is buoyant and colorful. This was probably pitched as “‘The Hangover’ goes to Iowa!’,” and while it doesn’t even approach that level of raucous, R-rated hilarity, it’s not a bad attempt.
B- (1 hr., 26 min.; )