The first thing that attracted me to Cedar Rapids was the cast. Our lead is played by former “Daily Show” correspondent Ed Helms, who also exec produces here. Supporting him are John C. Reilly in the best friend role and Anne Heche as the (kinda) love interest. We’ve also got Isiah Whitlock Jr., one of many talented alumni from “The Wire,” in another prominent supporting role. There’s also Sigourney Weaver. And Stephen Root. Kurtwood Smith, late of “That ’70s Show.” “Arrested Development’s” Alia Shawkat. Rob Corrdry, another “Daily Show” graduate, gets a cameo role.
Talk about a pedigree! There’s a lot of talented actors in this film, most of whom have proven comedic chops. What kind of story would bring all these actors together? Let’s take a look.
The film is set at an annual conference of insurance salesmen taking place at the eponymous city. There, the prestigious Two Diamonds award is given to the insurance company that provides the best customer coverage while honoring family, flag and Bible. This award has been won for the past four years’ running by BrownStar Insurance, a small company based in Brown Valley, Wisconsin. Unfortunately, BrownStar’s chief representative dies at the last minute under unusual circumstances and Ed Helms’ character is sent in as his eager replacement.
This premise is played out as a typical “small-town guy in a big city” story. Of course, this is nothing new, as we’ve seen this premise in cinema from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington clear through to Elf. The twist, however, is that the “big city” in question is Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I checked Wikipedia’s list of the USA’s largest cities (by population), and Cedar Rapids ranks 189th. With all due respect to the good people of Iowa, who could possibly visit this town of roughly 126,000 people and react as if it was Manhattan?
Well, let’s not forget that Tim Lippe (Helms) comes from Brown Valley, Wisconsin, which is either fictional or so tiny that I can’t find it on Google or Wikipedia. He’s lived in this whitebread, Christian town his whole life and it’s the only home he knows. This upbringing has produced a hopelessly naive man who’s basically an overgrown boy scout. As a case in point, consider Tim’s relationship with his old sixth-grade teacher, Macy Vanderhai (Weaver). She’s a recent divorcee who’s looking for a quick and easy fuck. He thinks that monogamy is somehow required of two people making love, for whom the phrase “casual sex” is a contradiction in terms. Mentally and emotionally, he’s still a twelve-year-old boy who’s consummating a crush on his teacher, while she’s just enjoying a fling with a younger man.
So, yeah. Our protagonist is a goody-two-shoes who never cusses, doesn’t drink and holds himself to the highest moral standard imposed on him by those in authority. You can already see where this is going.
Tim arrives at Cedar Rapids and is befriended by fellow insurance salesmen played by Reilly, Heche and Whitlock, Jr. Reilly plays an especially huge fuck-up, though all three are lewd, crude, hard-drinking clowns. Yet what keeps these characters likable — and more importantly, funny — is that none of them are malicious in any way. They constantly piss people off, but they’re never remotely violent. They get totally plastered and hold their own pool party after hours, but they never commit any notable property damage. Furthermore, no matter how far these characters go, they always stay self-conscious of their faults and their limits. That’s more than can be said of Shawkat’s character or the punks she hangs with.
As you may have already guessed, the grand theme here is “moderation in all things.” Before the film is done, Tim has broken rules and defied authority, but he’s also learned that doing those things doesn’t make him a bad person. So yeah, we’re not exactly breaking any new intellectual or moral ground with this one.
The humor is likewise very simple. This movie is absolutely crammed with sex humor and drug jokes that are incredibly sophomoric. Still, there’s some nice character-based humor to be found as well, and the gross-out humor doesn’t get any worse than the occasional bit of male nudity (yes, Ed Helms and John C. Reilly both have nude moments in this film. It ain’t pretty).
Basically put, Cedar Rapids is totally brainless, but it’s never anywhere near stupid enough to insult the audience’s intelligence. What’s more, these actors inject a lot of heart and warmth into their characters. That does a lot to keep the characters likable, the movie enjoyable and the jokes funny. This is not classic comedy by any stretch of the imagination, but if you just want a quick and disposable time laughing, give this 90-minute film a try.