Tim Lippe is an almost painfully simple man. He sells insurance for a small company in Brown Valley, Wisconsin, is in love with his former seventh grade teacher, who he’s carrying on an affair with, and has no real desire to ever break out or see the world. He’s the kind of guy that gets excited about a rental car. So when his company suddenly needs him to drop everything and represent them at a mid-sized insurance convention for the weekend in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he finds himself in a bit over his head.
Cedar Rapids, Miguel Arteta’s comic chronicle of Lippe’s wild weekend, is a bit of a surprise on two fronts. The first surprise, that the movie is much smarter than it looks, is a welcome one; the second, that it’s not quite as funny as it could’ve been, is the kind of let down that stays with you a few days.
Which is a shame, because the film’s first half is nearly flawless. Ed Helms plays Lippe as so uncomfortably set in his ways that he becomes a perfect contrast to the group of convention veterans that become his friends; the Wire-quoting Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), the ambiguously flirtatious Joan (Anne Heche), and the convention’s resident wildman, Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly). These three take on Lippe almost as a sort of project, determined to break him out of his middle-school mindset and expose him to the real world and real fun. As they say, comedy ensues.
But what becomes interesting isn’t just the laughs (and there are plenty), but more so the story of what a group of middle aged insurance salesmen would do on what they consider the most wild weekend of the year. Cedar Rapids becomes their Vegas, full of drinks, sex, drugs, and the occasional run in with the local prostitute. But the film is smart enough to keep all of this reigned in to a degree that is mostly believable. It isn’t The Hangover, and it shouldn’t be. The only time the film’s comedy falters is towards the end, when it enters the realm of the too ridiculous and never really finds its groove again.
Part of the reason for its success is that good comedy is a product of the ability of its cast, and here, the support is all up to task. But standing above them all is John C. Reilly, who may truly be some sort of comic gift from God for his ability to constantly find exactly the right tone for each of his roles. This is an actor who has been able to be taken seriously in roles in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and then turned around and been just as convincing in an all out farce like Step Brothers. Here is no different, as he finds and walks the line the film draws between all out comedy and serious thoughts about coming-of-age later in life. At times the movie seems to want to spiral into a million pieces, but he’s able to hold it together by combining all facets of what the film wants to say into one man. When he’s describing how Lippe can better his life by learning to ‘dance with the tiger,’ we laugh but we know he’s dead serious.
At its core, Cedar Rapids is still a simple growing up story, and so the debauchery all goes to show Lippe how much he’s learned about himself and his new friends. But there is a single moment (that I obviously won’t describe here) in which Anne Heche’s character seems to break an unseen wall and does something that most of us would assume is simply wrong, and the film doesn’t really know how to treat her afterwards. It gives no obvious positive or negative reaction to her, but it almost seems to slyly approve, and from that point on we’re not sure how we should feel about her character, or even the film as a whole, anymore. Everyone else in the film seems to react correctly to it except for her, and in an instant we (or at least I did) turn against her, which wouldn’t be a problem if the film didn’t continue to regard her as if nothing had changed. By the film’s end we know how we feel about Lippe, and Lippe knows how he feels about himself (at last). But we still don’t know exactly how the film itself feels about its own morals and ideas about life, which makes it just a little bit harder to laugh.
Cedar Rapids is well written and sharply acted, and if not for a few flaws would surely be one of the better comedies of the year: B-