SUNDANCE REVIEW: Cedar Rapids
PARK CITY -– (Premieres) Ed Helms lands a sturdy showcase for his trademark awkwardness and nerdy charms in "Cedar Rapids," a kind of delayed coming-of-age comedy about a sheltered innocent that in many ways recalls "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," the big-screen breakout of Helms' co-star from "The Office," Steve Carell.
Set during an insurance sales convention in the Iowa burg of the title, Miguel Arteta's new film also has some of the flavor of Alexander Payne's Midwestern comedies.
That's clearly no accident given that Payne produced, together with his Ad Hominem Enterprises partners Jim Burkeand Jim Taylor. It's easy to see what drew them to Phil Johnston's script. Like Payne and Taylor's screenplays, it balances gentle mockery with affection, and displays a taste for raucous profanity. It's not exactly The Hangover, but the dialogue and situations often get distinctly gamey.
Helms plays Tim Lippe, an unworldly innocent and smiling underachiever at a tiny insurance firm in small-town Wisconsin. He has a weekly tryst with his recently divorced former 7th grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver), who's out for some fun, while Tim is convinced they are "pre-engaged."
This early part of the movie doesn't quite hit the mark, in part because it's impossible to buy any woman played by Weaver hooking up with an unsophisticated dweeb like Tim. But the comedy settles in soon as Tim gets out of town.
When the company's star salesman dies during erotic asphyxiation, negative publicity threatens to alienate the God-fearing client base. Unable to attend the annual convention himself, Tim's boss (Stephen Root) dispatches the rube to Cedar Rapids to bag a prestigious award that is crucial to the firm's survival. That requires finessing Bible-thumping prize administrator Oren Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith).
Helms' awestruck delight as he experiences basics like plane travel and car rental for the first time is endearing and funny. Likewise his breathless appreciation of the cheesy splendor of the hotel's atrium swimming pool. Tim's physical discomfort is hilarious when his first one-on-one with Helgesson occurs while both are naked after a post-workout shower.
But the comedy's defining dynamic is the group bond that develops among Tim and three of his fellow conventioneers. These include mild-mannered Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and loud-mouth Deanzie (John C. Reilly), with whom Tim shares a hotel suite; and Joan (Anne Heche), the foxy girl among overgrown frat boys, who savors the escape from family duties. For all of them to some degree, convention time is a reprieve from the rules of real life.
Unaccustomed to moral deviation, Tim careens helplessly from a wild night of drunken philandering to a morning of soul-searching after compromising his integrity in order to secure the award from hypocritical Helgesson. Another rude awakening follows when his boss reveals a corrupt agenda. Tim's downward spiral then lands him at an out-of-control drug party with Bree (Alia Shawkat), a friendly hooker working the convention crowd.
Arteta and Johnston's disarming strategy is to set up a scenario in which the babe in the woods promises to be eaten alive by his more seasoned new acquaintances. But while they do lead Tim far astray, they also respond to his guileless good-heartedness and form an unlikely coalition, stepping in to rescue him from personal and professional disaster.
Clearly benefiting from some improvisation, the chemistry among Helms, Reilly and Whitlock generates the movie's best scenes.
Reilly scores many of the plum lines and scales heights of gross-out vulgarity usually reserved for skater dudes, not paunchy middle-aged salesmen. But he nails the instantly identifiable archetype of the brash party animal at every company retreat so well that his signals of underlying sensitivity are especially poignant. Whitlock makes the perfect straight man, and while Heche shines brightest in more brittle mode, as in HBO's Hung, she strikes a sweet balance between Joan's mischievous and maternal sides.
In his best films, Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl, Arteta has always been more adept with story and character than visuals. This one is no different, though the Midwestern milieu and soulless business-hotel setting look persuasively real.
If the film is on the slight side, it has an unquestionable asset – and its best chance at finding an audience -- in Helms, who is both goofy and dignified. It's impossible not to root for Tim as he discovers a resourcefulness he didn't know he had, without losing sight of the inherent decency and optimism that make him a magnet for true friendships.
Production: Ad Hominem Enterprises for Fox Searchlight Pictures
Screenwriter: Phil Johnston
Producers: Jim Burke, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Executive producer: Ed Helms
Director of photography: Chuy Chavez
Production designer: Doug J. Meerdink
Music: Christophe Beck
Costume designer: Hope Hanafin
Editor: Eric Kissack
Rated R, 87 minutes