Insurance greenhorn Tim Lippe (Helms) is ordered by his boss to head to the town of Cedar Rapids, where a crucial award is up for grabs. But his good intentions start to slip away once he meets a trio of veteran salesmen, who lure him into a heady world of sex, drugs and cream sherry.
Of all the meta moments meted out in 2011, it’s unlikely any will top the one near the end of Cedar Rapids. Buttoned-up black insurance salesman Ron, having just revealed a more gangsta side to his personality, turns to his colleagues, grins and delivers a pitch-perfect impersonation of Omar from HBO series The Wire. The meta bit? Ron’s played by Isiah Whitlock Jr., the actor famous for portraying Senator Clay “Shiiiiiiiiiiit” Davis, in, yes, The Wire.
The gag is silly. It’s out-there. It’s very funny. And so, for the most part, is this low-budget, high-striking comedy of embarrassment. It’s a vehicle for a post-Hangover Ed Helms, who stars as nerdy office drone Tim Lippe, a man who’s never so much as stayed in a hotel before he arrives in Cedar Rapids for the annual insurance convention. He expects a sleepy burgh; instead, he finds a place seething with debauchery and corruption. Like Alexander Payne’s Sideways, the warm and breezy tone of which this emulates, the deeply unpromising set-up is turned to the film’s advantage. There’s a charming triviality to the shenanigans that ensue, as various factions compete to win the 2 Diamonds award, an item which truly puts the ‘guff’ in MacGuffin.
It’s Animal House redone with middle-aged insurance folk: Kurtwood Smith’s preening, chicken-necked president subs for Dean Wormer, while John C. Reilly’s party boy Dean Ziegler ferociously Blutos up the joint. Reilly is a live-wire force, his hair slicked down and eyes blazing with Bacchanalian zest, the polar opposite of his sadsack turn in last year’s Cyrus. He’s magnificent, but miraculously doesn’t hog the show. Instead, fun moments and peppy lines are doled out generously to all: Anne Heche, as a tattooed hottie harbouring a few secrets; Sigourney Weaver, as Tim’s maternal fiancée; Office Space’s Stephen Root, as Tim’s perspiry boss; and more besides. It’s fun just to watch the characters rap, to the point that the actual plot starts to feel like an intrusion.
There’s a familiarity to much of Cedar Rapids, from Helms’ beleaguered hero (the indignities are less grandiose than those in The Hangover, but no less humiliating) to the Hooker With A Heart Of Gold™ who hovers on the action’s fringes. But the film is so likable that it doesn’t just feel fresh. It feels refreshing.
One of those sunny-natured indie comedies that comes out of nowhere to put a smile on your face.