Who would have thought there was a seedy underbelly in the world of insurance salesmen? The new comedy Cedar Rapids, starring Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche and Isiah Whitlock Jr., takes a small town guy and throws him into the wild world of an insurance convention in the “big city” of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Helms plays Tim Lippe, a simple guy who’s never left his small town of Brown Valley, Wisconsin and is semi-dating his former middle school teacher, played by Sigourney Weaver. Tim is an insurance salesman, something he considers a noble profession instead of a boring dead-end job. His hero, Roger (Thomas Lennon) is the company’s brightest star and has single-handedly won two ASMI Two Diamond awards, the highest honor for insurance salesmen. When Roger dies in a bizarre autoerotic asphyxiation accident, Tim must step up and attend the big ASMI convention in Cedar Rapids.
Of course, someone as green as Tim is susceptible to all sorts of corruption, and that’s where Dean Ziegler (Reilly) comes in. He’s the black sheep of the insurance world, a party-all-the-time schmoozer who treats the annual convention like a weekend in Vegas. Tim is determined to avoid Ziegler like the plague, but a little change of plans leaves him sharing a room with this wild man. His only relief comes from his other roommate, Ronald Wilkes (Whitlock), a conservative guy whose only walk on the wild side comes from watching HBO’s The Wire.
Tim starts to get curious about these seasoned pros who seem to have the convention down to a routine. He is especially interested when he meets Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Heche), a saucy redhead who comes to the convention to live it up and escape her boring real life. His desire to hang out with her leads him down a path to the kind of crazy fun he could never even imagine before.
The story of a naïve bumpkin taking his first step into the wild world beyond is nothing new. Many movies have used this formula. What makes Cedar Rapids different is the realistic quality and the cast.
Like Napoleon Dynamite or Cyrus, the film feels very real. Director Miguel Artera shot on real locations instead of Hollywood studios and everything, down to the extras in the background, seems authentic. Anyone who’s ever been to a convention or trade show for their job will feel right at home in the budget hotel with indoor pool in the lobby. If you’ve ever been through a team building exercise or sat through an “inspirational” speech from a keynote speaker, you’ll identify with the characters at the ASMI convention. So many of us have been through these activities and found them painfully boring, but Tim acts like they’re the coolest things he’s ever done. It makes him endearing, but a times a little too innocent.
Helms is great at playing the good guy, the sweet guy who gets taken advantage of, but who learns how to be stronger and more mature by the end. Tim is occasionally a little too naïve, drifting through the convention like a wide-eyed child, but Helms manages to keep us interested in the character. He’s a nice guy who never meant anyone any harm and is suddenly thrust into a den of corruption—well, maybe more like a modestly-furnished hotel room of corruption.
Heche is the love interest so, while funny, her role seems to carry more dramatic weight than the others. She’s the one who pulls Tim out of his shell and, at times, this can feel a little sappy. Still, her scavenger hunt scenes are great and her interaction with the other members of the group feels natural.
Whitlock is a pleasant surprise, playing Ronald as conservative, but still hip enough to hang out with the cool kids. His little sayings (“It’s NTS, Not Too Shabby”) and business-like delivery make him seem like a real person, like your friend’s nerdy insurance salesman dad. Ronald’s sudden transition from nerd to “straight-up gangsta” in one scene is incredibly funny given what we’ve learned about his character.
The star of Cedar Rapids has got to be Reilly. Guys like him and Will Ferrell can play sleazy funnier than most other actors around. Ziegler is fantastic because he’s a big fish in a hilariously small pond. He acts like Charlie Sheen, but instead of coke-fueled Hollywood nights, he’s in the pool of some three star hotel with a trash can on his head knowing that he’s got to get up for a leadership exercise the next day. That realness is why the film works.
The only disappointment is with Alia Shawkat, or rather the lack of Alia Shawkat. The Arrested Development alum plays a prostitute who makes her money off guys at the convention. Everyone who’s ever watched Arrested knows the girl is funny, but she’s tragically underused. Her longest time on screen is during a completely superfluous party scene that’s meant to show the difference between a real crazy party and the kind of mischief Tim and his friends have been engaging in. Every time we see her on screen, we want more and, unfortunately, there just isn’t enough of her in Cedar Rapids.
This film is not The Hangover, in fact, it’s like the anti-Hangover. No one gets drunk and accidentally steals a tiger because that’s not what real people do, and the goal of Cedar Rapids is to present a more realistic brand of comedy. The overall indie-ness of the film coupled with the skilled cast is what makes this rather typical story feel new.