At one point in “Cedar Rapids,” a gaggle of Midwestern insurance salesmen partakes in a network-building scavenger hunt. Gathered in the Iowa town for an annual conference, they race to milk cows, eat hot dogs and navigate a climbing wall. The conference’s honcho explains that the contest is just like TV’s “Amazing Race,” only instead of a million dollars, the winners get to share a $45 gift certificate to the Kiku Japanese restaurant in the Westdale Mall. Midwesterners are so easy to please.
It is easy to see how, in lesser hands, this endearing comedy could have degenerated into a pompous gag fest where big-city audiences get to sit in their seats and laugh at all the cute little things small- town people find cool. And there is plenty of that sensibility, and, yes, it is pretty darn funny. But there is more to “Cedar Rapids” than laughing at bumpkins.
In his first leading role, Ed Helms (“The Hangover” and TV’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”) plays a naïve insurance salesman from small-town Wisconsin named Tim Lippe.
Tim has never been on a plane before. When he sees the hotel’s fake trees and smells the chlorine, he thinks of Barbados. Before Tim sets off for the conference, his boss pats him on the shoulder and says, “I thought you were a kid who was going to go places, and somehow you just didn’t.”
Now this is Tim’s opportunity to go down to the big city and bring home the award for the region’s top insurance company. The pressure is almost too much to bear.
Once in Cedar Rapids, three conference veterans swiftly rope Tim into their fun. Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr. from “The Wire”) is an unmarried dud who has not taken a proper vacation in nine years.
While he is proud of his first billboard outside St. Cloud, Minn., it is clear his existence is a lonely one.
Joan (Anne Heche) is a married mother of two from Omaha who views the annual conference as her chance to let loose. She is bubbly and game for anything, but if she had to do it all over again, this is not the life she would choose. John C. Reilly plays the loud and crass Dean Zigler (or “Deansie,” as he insists); behind his uncouth jokes, the cheap suit and the booze is a man who is hurting from a recent divorce.
There is no such thing as a perfect comedy. Even the good ones falter down the final straightaway and “Cedar Rapids” is no exception. For one thing, it is hard to believe, in this connected day and age, that Tim could be so naïve. By the end, however, the gang of four has built up such goodwill that its logical faults can be sloughed off. They have created a world the audience can laugh at, sure, but we also believe Tim is a wiser man in the end. As for the other three, helping Tim get there was more than just a good time.
Anchored by strong characters and a script with some depth, the insignificant world of “Cedar Rapids” becomes less farcical and more human, because the stakes matter to the people who inhabit it. And free sushi? Why, bring the man a fork.
1hr 27 min. Rated R for language and drug use.