Have you ever wondered what the blockbuster comedy The Hangover might have been like if it had focused on Ed Helms’s dweeby dentist character? Well, so did director Miguel Arteta – he even admitted as much in a press junket interview. The result is the indie comedy Cedar Rapids, which manages to be funny, rude, feel-good and nasty, all in somewhat equal doses.
Helms plays Tim Lippe, an insurance agent based in Brown Valley, Wisconsin. Tim is a naïve, wide-eyed man-child – so much so that the film’s first few minutes reveal that he’s been sleeping with one of his former teachers (Sigourney Weaver? Yes, Sigourney Weaver! Awesome.) Tim’s heart is so pure that he even gives her a promise ring.
When his agency’s resident rock star, Roger (raunchy-comedy veteran Thomas Lennon (Reno 911!) in a brief, hilarious cameo) is found dead in a particularly scandalous way, Tim’s boss (the great Stephen Root) sends him to a big convention in Cedar Rapids, Tim leaves his hometown for the first time and comes face to face with mid-size city debauchery as he pursues the coveted Two Diamond award for his firm.
Cue the scene-stealing John C. Reilly (Step Broters) as Dean Ziegler, the foul-mouthed hardcore partier who ends up rooming with Tim – and who Tim’s boss warned him to avoid at all costs. Reilly plays Dean as if channeling a Meatballs-era Bill Murray: loud, crass, and yet somehow lovable, even when passed out on a patio table in his underpants. Dean is joined by Ronald Wilkes (The Wire’s Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche in her most appealing role in years), and both characters somehow manage to make insurance salesmen seem like decent human beings. Tim in particular surpasses decent. He’s a good person who believes in helping people, and when confronted with the moral hypocrisy of damn near everyone this man-child discovers that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and they’re all really funny in this case.
Director Miguel Arteta is responsible for some of the weirdest funny movies in recent memory, such as the brooding dark comedies Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl. Arteta keeps things fairly light in Cedar Rapids, even when Tim befriends a kindly prostitute (Alia Shawkat) at a house party full of crackhead rednecks. Tim Lippe’s story is the latest in a line of late-starting coming of age comedies, like 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. It’s also one of the best. The tone swings wildly from slapstick/gross-out to heartfelt human drama, but once Arteta finds the balance in Phil Johnston’s script, he makes it hum.
Cedar Rapids isn’t for everyone, but if you’re willing to hang out with a good-hearted sick puppy like Dean Ziegler, you’ll find yourself wishing you had an insurance agent like Tim Lippe.