By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
What can brown do for the protagonist of Cedar Rapids? Well, let’s put it this way: not much, even though he lives in Brown Valley, works at BrownStar Insurance, and dresses almost exclusively in brown.
Ed Helms stars in the life-affirming and laugh-out-loud-funny Cedar Rapids as dweeby manchild Tim Lippe (rhymes with trippy), a 34-year-old insurance salesman who lives and works in the small town of Brown Valley, Wisconsin; is “pre-engaged” to the woman who was once his seventh-grade teacher, played by Sigourney Weaver; and not only has he never been to a major city or in an airplane or stayed in a hotel, he has never even left Brown Valley.
Till now, that is.
When a colleague dies in spectacularly scandalous fashion, the sincere and credulous Tim is chosen to replace him and go to the major metropolis of Cedar Rapids, Iowa to attend the annual regional insurance convention and attempt to save his company from oblivion by bringing back the cherished, prestigious Two Diamonds Award that his company tends to win each and every year.
No sooner does the severely sheltered and gullible Tim check into his awe-inspiring hotel than he meets and bonds with two roommates, straight-laced Wilkes and outspoken Zeigler, played respectively by Isiah Whitlock (of TV’s “The Wire”) and John C. Reilly. And Tim meets and is immediately smitten by a playful Nebraskan insurance agent named Joan, played by Anne Heche, who uses the annual event to give herself some breathing room — and then some — from the family life that she otherwise cherishes and devotes herself to.
With all the intriguing distractions and sinful temptations that Tim’s new bad-influence companions have in store for him, this can’t help but be his coming-out party. And as well-meaning and well-intentioned as Tim is, he’s about to loosen up so much that he just might come apart at the seams.
But he does pay close enough attention to notice that corporate corruption exists far beyond what he, in his splendid naiveté, thought was possible.
Director Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl, Youth in Revolt, Chuck & Buck, Star Maps), has filled his small-scale, likable film with telling details, and kept the pace brisk and the running time far too brief for this telling tale to overstay its welcome.
And perhaps most importantly, Arteta has cast his entertaining film perfectly. What could easily have devolved into a convention of caricatures is instead a delightful array of full-blooded, recognizable characters.
Debuting screenwriter Phil Johnston fashioned his engaging script — which gets in a few satirical swipes at the insurance industry and religious hypocrisy and has its share of truly hilarious one-liners — for the supremely talented Helms, who in his first starring role as an innocent, eternally optimistic stranger in a strange land fulfills the promise that his amusing supporting work in The Hangover and TV’s “The Office” indicated. He holds the screen effortlessly and gives his leading man unexpected depth.
Keep your eye on this guy; he’s got quite a comedy career ahead of him.
And the leading funnyman is ably supported in this outing by a buoyant comedy ensemble: the familiar and dependable Reilly, the less familiar but delightfully quirky Whitlock, the sharply witty and effectively three-dimensional Heche, and the dryly and slyly insinuating Weaver.
Pity that Cedar Rapids occasionally plays to fans of The Hangover instead of trusting and following through on its it’s-never-too-late-to-come-of-age narrative. And the conclusion is on the glib and simplistic side.
Nonetheless, although the film is surely raunchy and rowdy, it’s also sweet-natured, warmhearted, and obviously fond of its characters. As are we.
So we’ll insure 3 stars out of 4 for this genial, refreshingly modest, crowd-pleasing fish-out-of-water romp. What happens in Cedar Rapids stays in Cedar Rapids. And gets a convention’s worth of unconventional laughs.