Cedar Rapids is a sweet, but never sappy, comedy from director Miguel Arteta, who specializes in small films, usually comedies, which are almost anti-Hollywood in the way they allow humor to come naturally from well-developed characters rather than contrived jokes. Like his previous efforts, The Good Girl and the underrated 2009 film Youth in Revolt, Arteta casts well-known actors against type and allows them to develop their characters while showing off previously unexplored sides of their acting range. Even with actors that are well-known to mainstream audiences, Cedar Rapids flew under the radar, quietly slipping in and out of theatres in early 2011 while mediocrity continued its reign at the box office.
Ed Helms plays Tim Lippe, an insurance agent for Brown Star Insurance in Brown Valley, Wisconsin. Tim is a simple and naïve, but good-hearted man, completely out of touch with the modern world. He is "pre-engaged" to his seventh-grade teacher Macy Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver) and is oblivious to the world outside of Brown Valley. After a co-worker dies under mysterious circumstances, Tim's boss, Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root), sends him to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to represent the agency and claim the prestigious Two Diamonds Award. Upon his arrival, Tim befriends fellow insurance agents Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and the hard-partying Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), while finding himself smitten with Joan (Anne Heche). Yielding both hilarious and heartfelt results, Tim is introduced to situations he never imagined he'd find in Brown Valley, Wisconsin.
Other familiar faces include Kurtwood Smith (as the ultra-religious president of the convention) and Rob Corddry (in a short, but amusing cameo). Probably the most light-hearted film Arteta has directed, some will still label it a "dark comedy" due to its willingness to disregard political correctness and develop characters truthfully. I've often thought of Arteta as "Alexander Payne-lite" as his distinct, off-beat style seems cut from the same stylistic cloth as the films of Alexander Payne. This similarity was never more apparent to me while watching Cedar Rapids and I was surprised to learn, when the credits rolled, that Payne and his frequent writing partner, Jim Taylor, are actually two of the film's producers. Arteta's direction and style lend a lot to the quality of the film, but that's not to diminish the influence of Phil Johnston's script, which made the 2009 Hollywood Blacklist of the best unproduced screenplays. The script is a marvel in the way it features strong, funny, and deeply human characters with only a so-so story to push them forward. There's nothing particularly bad about the script, it's just a fairly straight-forward story that reaches a fairly standard conclusion. This small criticism aside, it's still more touching and clever than any comedy I've seen this year.
One must give credit to the terrific cast for frequently elevating the quality of the material. Helms doesn't get the chance to expand his range very much with Tim, but he does offer another side of the introverted, passive, and awkward character he's made his name playing before. Whitlock Jr. almost steals the show with his performance as Ronald, possibly being the only actor (or person even) who can elicit a laugh from saying "The HBO series `The Wire.'" Heche does a nice turn with her role, as does Weaver, who brings more class and humor to her small role than most actresses would have. There is a lot of talent in front of the camera, but Reilly's performance alone is enough for me to recommend the film. Loud, rude and hilariously funny, Reilly brings enough comedic energy, heart, and colorful use of the English language to make a separate film.
Cedar Rapids is an intelligent, low-key film that quietly sneaks up on you and charms with an equal amount of heart and wit. It's much more satisfying and genuinely funny than a large percentage of Hollywood comedies being pushed into local cinemas each week and it boasts a terrific cast doing some fantastic, dynamic work. It fits more heart and humor into its 87-minute running time than most big comedies do with more than twice that.