Ah, the Midwest. It’s a place that people compliment and make fun of at the same time. When you tell people from other parts of the country that you come from the Midwest, you’re liable to hear something like, “Well isn’t that quaint.” Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but anybody that’s seen Fargo knows that Hollywood tends to look at Midwesterners as church-going, non-swearing, simple folk who watch football on Sundays and go to bed by ten o’clock sharp every night. The idea of a “simpler” life is something that people tend to praise, but generally not without looking down on, or laughing at. Fortunately, there’s nothing simple about Cedar Rapids.
Ed Helms plays Tim Lippe, an insurance agent from Brown Valley, Wisconsin, who is sent to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to represent BrownStar, the insurance company he works for. Tim is incredibly naïve, and to him, Cedar Rapids is a giant Metropolis. Although Tim initially tries to resist the temptations of the big city, he gives in pretty quickly, in no small part because of Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), an obnoxious yet charismatic insurance salesman.
As usual, Reilly is crass perfection as Ziegler, injecting the movie with his typically over-the-top but totally rewarding style of humor. The other major supporting players, Anne Heche as Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Helms’ party girl love interest) and Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Ronald Wilkes, the most level-headed of Tim’s new friends, are equally brilliant. Heche is funny but also completely relatable as a woman who just wants to have a weekend of fun without the rest of her concerns bearing down on her. And Whitlock Jr. balances out the rest of the cast as a straight man who’ll still make you laugh. This is in no small part due to the healthy dose of meta hilarity that comes from casting Whitlock as a guy who’s a big fan of HBO’s The Wire. The movie is also chock full of great actors in smaller roles, including Stephen Root, Kurtwood Smith, Alia Shwakat, Rob Corddry, Mike O’Malley, Mike Birbiglia, Thomas Lennon and Sigourney Weaver.
Director Miguel Artera, of last year’s Youth in Revolt, clearly has a gift for slightly subversive comedy. Cedar Rapids, although largely sweet in many ways, also has some distinctly dark undertones. Bright and bushy-tailed as Tim is, he’s also in many ways a severely damaged person, just like his new friends. Writer Phil Johnston does a good job with characterization.
However, the movie suffers in its third act, unable to maintain the momentum it established earlier in the movie. Tim does a complete 180, going from small town naïf to crazed wild man at a party where he smokes crystal meth, something which, no matter how sheltered one is, is hard to imagine just doing on a whim. This, although fairly amusing, unfortunately takes away a certain reality from the whole thing.
Even more frustrating is Reilly’s departure from the main action. As Ziegler starts to play less of a role in the film, the momentum definitely decreases. However, perhaps to Johnston’s credit, choices like making Ziegler just another member of the ensemble rather than a “wacky John C. Reilly character” help to give Cedar Rapids the believability it holds on to for most of the film.
Of course, the real revelation here, and what ultimately makes the movie as good as it is, is Ed Helms. Helms, as he’s done with his other roles, brings a real affection to his character. One of the main reasons that Cedar Rapids never feels like it’s making fun of the Midwest is that Helms’ performance is so genuine. He puts Lippe through the ringer, but never in a way that’s cruel; it ultimately comes down to having fun with the character without making fun of him. And for anyone wondering why Helms hasn’t gotten the big roles Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis have gotten post-Hangover, don’t worry. If he keeps delivering performances this good, he’ll play leading men many times again in the future.