Tim Lippe (Ed Helms, from "The Hangover") is an insurance agent who, in his 34 years, has never once ventured beyond the borders of his hometown of Brown Valley, Wis. He's more than a rube – he's practically a babe in the woods. He finally gets the opportunity to see the world, or at least a wee patch of it, when he attends an annual weekend insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He's never flown on a plane before, never stayed at a hotel, and doesn't even know what a credit-card imprint is.
This is the shaky comic premise of "Cedar Rapids," directed by Miguel Arteta and written by Phil Johnston, and, to the extent that you can buy into it, it's a funny one. But Tim, who is unmarried and apparently without much in the way of family or friends, is more of a comic convenience than a character. Apart from a dalliance with the woman, played by Sigourney Weaver, who used to be his seventh-grade teacher, Tim seems altogether sexless and without ambition. If the filmmakers had bothered to figure out why a reasonably normal 34-year-old man never entertained the idea of stepping over his county line, "Cedar Rapids" might have added up to more than a one-joke frolic.
On the other hand, Arteta has somehow managed to make Tim into more than a low-comic hicksville target – despite the fact that Helms plays Tim so broadly that he often seems more like an imbecile than an innocent. Arteta succeeds, I think, because the three convention-veteran characters who surround Tim – played by John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, and Isiah Whitlock Jr. – are so sharp and funny that, by comparison, they confer on him a kind of sweet-souled normalcy.
As Dean "Deanzie" Ziegler, the party-animal insurance agent who can always be counted on to blurt out exactly the wrong thing, Reilly is screamingly funny. Deanzie is so energetically inappropriate that whenever he's off-screen the film seems to be taking a breather. I could hardly wait for him to reappear and begin riffing again. Deanzie is not only the life of the party – he's the life of the movie. He's a high-flown caricature who also manages, in the end, to be the film's most recognizably human creation.
Heche, as Joan, a married woman who looks upon these conventions as a chance to let her hair down, once again demonstrates that, given even an ounce of good material, she can command the screen the way few other actresses of her generation can. Joan's scenes with Tim, where she plays the vamp to his milquetoast, are surprisingly touching because Heche gives us a wide, clear view of Joan's doubleness. This slightly bored, slightly sad homebody is playing the vixen she wishes she were.
"Cedar Rapids" takes an inordinate number of wrong turns – especially a subplot involving a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, and a digression into a rural bullyboy party complete with cocaine and punch-outs – but it also has an inordinate number of good laughs mixed in with the not-so-good ones.
And how about a sequel for Deanzie?
(Rated R for crude and sexual content, language, and drug use.)
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