Silver Screen: Cedar Rapids ****
In Cedar Rapids, former Daily Show correspondent Ed Helms stars as Tim Lippe, an innocent abroad-- "abroad" here being the Midwestern mini-metropolis of the title city, which should give you an idea of just how innocent Tim is. He's an insurance agent living in tiny Brown Valley, Wisconsin, with a severe case of arrested development-- think Steve Carell's character in The Forty-Year-Old Virgin.
Tim isn't exactly a virgin, though; he's living out an Oedipal fantasy with his former junior high school teacher (Sigourney Weaver), although he's got nothing in the kink department on his coworker Roger (Thomas Lennon), who accidentally kills himself during a bout of autoerotic asphyxiation.
At the last minute, the extraordinarily unworldly Tim is tapped by his boss (Stephen Root) to fill in for fallen hotshot Roger and fly down to Cedar Rapids for a life-insurance corporate convention during which he will represent the company in a competition for a coveted industry prize, the Two Diamonds Award.
At the overbooked hotel, Tim is assigned a room with two fellow agents, the almost equally mild-mannered Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr., The Wire's beguiling crooked senator Clay Davis) and Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), the rebel of the insurance set. Dean is a booze-swilling loudmouth who's a little more perceptive than his headstrong personality first makes him appear, but Tim has been warned by his boss to steer clear.
Almost immediately Tim catches the eye of both an opportunistic prostitute (Alia Shawkat)-- no heart of gold here-- and a pretty fellow conventioneer (Anne Heche) who uses the yearly event as her weekend off from her husband and two children. Tim is beset by temptation on all sides: the girls, the booze, Ziegler's apostatical views about the insurance biz, and even the moralist president of the convention (Kurtwood Smith, always a great bad guy).
Cedar Rapids concerns itself with a small world, the workaday dealings of rural insurance agents, and makes it even smaller by squeezing the entire upper Midwestern regional crew into a two-story hotel. Director Miguel Arteta, working from an excellent script by Phil Johnston, finds the charm in the details of this social set, from the jargony banter about premiums to the secret desires of the agents who, Dean included, lead quiet lives. Even Deanzie, their iconoclast, is no more dangerous than the average middle-aged guy patrolling the bar at Ruby Tuesday during happy hour.
Reilly is a terrific dramatic actor and a very funny guy who, during the past few years, has leaned ever more toward loud, broad comedy. Like Jeff Daniels out-dumbing Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber, Reilly one-upped Will Ferrell as a clueless egotist in a couple movies, and he's seemed unable, at times, to find his way back. He's right on the money here, though, employing his full-bore boor but never losing sight of the charm in the character, ultimately revealing Dean to be perhaps the most complex of all of them. He's a great foil for Helms, who also does nice work here.
Even when the film goes big-- maybe a little too big-- in the final act, with both an overbaked Frank Capra moment and a wild party gone too far, Arteta never abandons his naturalistic sensibilities. So while Tim may go a little crazy after some drug use, it's a sharp contrast to essentially the same gag recently executed by the Farrelly brothers in Hall Pass. For the Farrellys, middle-aged guys overindulging turns into an orgy of stoner cliché s culminating in implausible flailing and a guy taking a dump into a bunker on a golf course. In Arteta's world, the experimentation gone awry just results in you lying in a room being talked down by your friends.
Arteta has had a lot of successes in the past-- he directed episodes of Freaks and Geeks, Six Feet Under, and The Office, as well as The Good Girl, Youth in Revolt, and Chuck and Buck-- but this is perhaps his best work yet. Despite the breezy trailer, Cedar Rapids has some edge to it, but as with the best of Judd Apatow's work, the sweetness of the characters never gets lost among the barrage of jokes. It's one of the year's first really enjoyable films.