Just as Glengarry Glen Ross was for real estate agents, director Miguel Arteta’s Cedar Rapids is an ode to the desperate, lonely life of the insurance salesman. Of course, there are a lot more jokes here than in David Mamet’s play, but there’s no avoiding that big melancholic heart beating at the center. And the feeling of defeat is easily sensed around these lively, ordinary people as they do their best to get along in a less than exciting life.
Ed Helms stars as the unfortunately named Tim Lippy, a kindhearted, preposterously innocent insurance man living in a sleepy Wisconsin town. Things move slowly in Tim’s town, if they move at all, and he prefers it that way. But when he’s assigned the task of traveling to Cedar Rapids to win a prestigious award for the agency, Tim finds himself thrust onto a plane and into the world.
Things are scary out there at first: there’s the “Afro-American” he finds in his hotel suite (who turns out to be his roommate Ron (played by Isiah Whitlock Jr. of “The Wire”) and the rambunctious Dean Ziegler (John C. Riley), whom he’d been previously warned about. But there are plenty of delights as well, including a friendly girl named Bree (a young prostitute played by Alia Shawkat) who hangs around outside the hotel. There’s also Omaha native and fellow insurance peddler Joan (Anne Heche), who quickly takes a motherly kind of liking to Tim.
With a character as sincere and inexperienced as Tim, Cedar Rapids is set up to be one of those useless, mean-spirited dork bashings. The fact that it never devolves into that is what makes this run-of-the-mill comedy something special. Sure, there are laughs to be had at Tim’s expense, and Arteta and writer Phil Johnston certainly take advantage of that. But they still take him seriously, and he’s a full-formed character as opposed to a clown.
Tim is like a more tragic exaggeration of Andy Bernard, Helms’ character from “The Office.” The fact that his performance is so spot-on shouldn’t be too surprising, but for the same reason it shouldn’t be dismissed. No one does the sweet, annoying imbecile like Helms, and Cedar Rapids gives him a little room to expand that character into some real dramatic territory.
Heche and Whitlock are good enough, the former playing a clone of Vera Farmiga’s Alex from Up in the Air , and the latter coasting on a few hilariously stupid references to “The Wire.” Riley is always a joy to watch, and the foul-mouthed boozer he plays here is no exception. Zeigler is nothing new for this actor either, but Riley’s look, persona and sheer volume still have plenty of mileage left.
This is no masterpiece, but Cedar Rapids is consistently funny and even moving in its own clumsy way. Yes, we’ll soon forget this one among the many other comedies that will inevitably take its place on the screens, but it’s still well worth a watch.