The bright lights of the big city can be overwhelming for even the sturdiest of men, but Cedar Rapids' main character, Tim Lippe (played by The Office’s Ed Helms) seems to take the excitement of Cedar Rapids in stride … at least at first. It’s a premise that has been done before but rarely with such refreshing execution. Cedar Rapids has a classic Jimmy Stewart feel with a modern Judd Apatow-esque edge to it.
Lippe is a dedicated insurance agent in a small town in Wisconsin. After the unfortunate death of his all-star co-worker, Tim is called to step to the plate and save his company at the uber-important yearly insurance conference in the big city, Cedar Rapids. During his journey, Tim meets several people who will alter his view and direction in life significantly. Every character has personal flaws, and there are no delusions of a perfect person, but it’s a fish-out-of-water tale with a lot of heart at its core. That doesn’t mean the characters—especially Tim—don’t grow along the way and experience a little redemption, though.
First-time feature film screenwriter Phil Johnston provides well-developed progression throughout the story. It is not perfect by any means, and he gets quite a bit of help from an extremely solid cast, but the detail in the characters’ backgrounds and situations is inspired. The film is also hilarious and surprisingly raunchy—thought that doesn’t distract from the story’s intentions. The balance of caricatures is frighteningly authentic and their actions are extreme without being over the top. Again, the fine cast should get a good deal of the credit for this as well.
Besides Helms’ socially inept protagonist, the star of this film may just be John C. Reilly as fellow insurance salesman (and complete opposite) Dean “Dean-zy” Ziegler. Reilly plays the character as rambunctious and raucous as possible while staying restrained when necessary. It is reminiscent of the roles he has played in several Will Ferrell movies, but still grounded. Most of the offensive humor comes from his mouth but plays to his advantage. He becomes silly and lovable instead of repulsive, which might have been easier to play.
There are three other surprises here that are worth mentioning. First is Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Tim’s conference roommate, Ronald Wilkes. Probably the most “normal” of all the personalities on display, Whitlock, mainly known for his role as State Senator Clay Davis on HBO’s The Wire (a cleverly targeted fact in the film), quietly portrays a character more complicated beneath the surface. He gets fewer jokes, but the way you can read his thoughts and emotions on his face is striking.
Second is Anne Heche as the lone female insurance agent in the group, Joan Ostrowski-Fox from Omaha, Neb. She is attracted to Tim’s ignorance and child-like nature and takes it upon herself to get him to break out a little. Heche is vulnerable in her performance and it is to be admired. She comes across as a woman everyone knows and can relate to. Not everyone will like her, but she doesn’t care—she just wants to live honestly.
Finally, Alia Shawkat (Maebe from Arrested Development) plays the hotel’s resident prostitute, Bree. It is the relationship between her and Helms’ character that is the most surprising. In the end, they realize that, even though their lives appear completely different, they are actually more similar than anyone could imagine. Shawkat, like the rest of the cast, could have played this role over the top but instead understands that everyone is selling something.
Director Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl and Youth in Revolt) does a solid job of capturing a realistic setting while adding to the humor of the film by making fun of the town itself. That was a vital choice when preparing to shoot this film. Arteta could have turned it into one big joke about the difference of Midwest culture but instead decided to use it as an environment instead. The style is not completely balanced, however. Arteta seems to be a director in transition; starting in the independent realm and clearly wanting to move to bigger films. He doesn’t have a negative effect on the movie but he doesn’t bring anything new to the table either.
All in all, Cedar Rapids is a heartfelt, laugh-out-loud comedy that will lift your spirits. There is at least one aspect of the film that everyone will be able to enjoy. It’s a movie that hearkens back to cinematic tales told to us by Capra and Hawkes but through the lens of the true nature of life—ugliness and all. Tag along on this trip to the big city and by the end, you’ll be glad you did.