By Eric Kohn | Indiewire February 9, 2011 at 2:36AM
Director Miguel Arteta does penance for his uneven adaptation of "Youth in Revolt" with the serviceable business comedy "Cedar Rapids," but the real star of the show is Ed Helms. Helms plays angelic insurance agent Tim Lippe with gentle nobility and hilarious naivete.
Having never ventured outside his remote Wisconsin hometown, Tim moves beyond his comfort zone when he gets the opportunity to attend an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where his tendency to do the right thing is repeatedly tested through challenges ranging from hedonistic party outings and the lures of financial corruption. Alternately oblivious and earnestly conflicted, Tim provides the ideal outlet for Helms' ability to play an awkward everyman with a heart of gold.
Early scenes establish the simplistic routine of Tim's life. He sleeps with a former elementary school teacher (Sigourney Weaver), professing his love for her ("we're basically engaged") without realizing her indifference. At work, he dreams of a big opportunity, which arrives on cue: When the insurance company's top sales guy (Thomas Lennon) dies in a freak accident, his scheming boss (Stephen Root) sends eager disciple Tim to the titular convention, where he encounters a colorful group of colleagues who challenge his homegrown values.
As a loudmouthed divorcee, John C. Reilly routinely upstages Helms with the boorish demeanor of a jaded veteran (he dubs the place "Cedar Crapids"). Family man Isiah Whitlock Jr. offers some friendly support for newbie Tim, mainly playing the straight man but still landing a few comic targets courtesy of his character's love for the HBO series "The Wire." And Tim finds a tentative new romantic interest in spunky saleswoman Joan (Anne Heche), whose philandering ways provide the key to unlocking Tim's repressed desires.
Which isn't to say that "Cedar Rapids" delves too deeply into the psyche of its characters. It does, however, have a thematic drive. Tim's moral code gets put to the test when the convention's top dog (Kurtwood Smith) reveals his true colors, at which point Phil Johnston's screenplay takes an amusingly dark turn. But the conflict doesn't negate the fun, which mainly takes the form of slapstick.
Arteta's final set-piece finds Tim tempted by an affable prostitute (Alia Shawkat) to spend the night partying with a bunch of crackheads, where he has an epiphany about his lifestyle. "We're all just selling something," his companion says. Tim's desire to work against that bleak outlook turns him into a genuine hero of the average Joe variety, resulting in the sort of honest middle-class portrait often attributed to Mike Judge (although Alexander Payne, a producer on the film, has probed comparable territory).
Once Arteta reaches a firm climax with the party sequence, the closing scenes wind down like an afterthought. Sympathizing with Helms' onscreen persona rather than mocking his innocence, "Cedar Rapids" ends with a slight, airy feel, much like Tim's cheerful perspective. Similar to NBC's "The Office," which brought Helms his breakthrough role, the movie both celebrates the righteousness of blue-collar values while blatantly—perhaps lovingly—spoofing them.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Received fairly warmly by critics at Sundance, "Cedar Rapids" has a mixture of broad humor and likable name talent (Helms, Reilly) that should propel it to decent, if limited, box office success—the sort of thing that distributor Fox Searchlight does better than anyone.
criticWIRE grade: B+