The first few minutes of Cedar Rapids were cringe-inducing—and made just that much worse by being at a 9:30 a.m. press screening. This appeared to offer nearly everything I detest about indie film, but it wasn’t long before I noticed a different tone than usual. Something was definitely going on with this tale of naive and nebbishy Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), a sheltered insurance agent who finds himself out of his depth as the company rep at an insurance convention. And the something that was going on was the film’s generosity of spirit when it became apparent that neither Tim, nor his small town of Brown Valley, Wis., were being viewed as sources of amusement. I was dreading condescending snark and found something altogether different.
Tim is a nice guy—the film is clear on this—and he’s not a clueless boob; he simply has no understanding of the world. All he knows is Brown Valley and his idealized vision of the insurance game. He’s comfortable with himself and his position. The insurance company provides him an ersatz family, while his boss, Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root, Rango), stands in for his absent father. His personal life revolves around his finally fulfilled junior-high crush on his teacher, Macy Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver), and he’s happy in this, even though it’s obvious to the viewer that he takes this a lot more seriously than she does. All this changes when the company’s star agent dies (in a kinky sex act), when it falls to Tim to take up the his role and win the coveted Two Diamond award at the annual convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
What happens is an eye-opening experience for Tim, which is to be expected, since he’s an innocent abroad for the first time in the wicked world. Everything is a treat to him, though he does panic rather easily. “There’s an Afro-American man standing in my room,” he tells Macy on his cell phone before realizing this is his roommate Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock, Jr., TV’s Rubicon). More startling still is the revelation that they have a third person sharing the room—Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), the one man his boss has warned him to have nothing to do with. But all this is set-up and it’s a set-up as much for the viewer as for Tim, because almost no one in Cedar Rapids is quite what they seem or what we think. Of course, the lesson for Tim is that very few people and things are as they appear on the surface.
This could have been tedious, predictable and smarmy—and it certainly can be extremely raunchy, but it’s never even slightly mean-spirited, and it keeps veering away from the obvious. Plus, the characterizations are solid, but never heavy-handed. Much is implied, but little is stated. It suggests that Ziegler is an unhappy, nice guy playing the obnoxious party guy to cover it. It intimates that Ronald is probably a closeted gay. We get the sense that Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche) is unhappy in her marriage. But all of this simply has to be picked up along the way. There’s even a good-natured hooker, Bree (Aliah Shawkat, Whip It), who may have a heart of gold, but is 100-percent hooker (her offer of expressing her love for Tim is probably the funniest raunchy line in the movie). It really is a terrific little movie full of characters who are worth meeting. Rated R for crude and sexual content, language and drug use.