There's London, there's Paris, and there's Cedar Rapids, Iowa—for straight-arrow Tim Lippe, not necessarily in that order. Tim (Ed Helms, of The Hangover) is a small-town insurance agent who looks upon his calling as heroic—he's there when his clients need him most, and he really cares. He's never been anywhere outside of peaceful Brown Valley, Wisconsin, where he still lives, in the same house he grew up in. True, he's occasionally sleeping with his seventh-grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver), to whom he likes to think of himself as "pre-engaged," but he's otherwise a museum-quality naïf—never flown on a plane, never stayed in a hotel. Then his company's top agent is found dead in the most disturbing circumstances (auto-erotic asphyxiation), and Tim's boss taps him to attend an annual insurance convention in faraway Cedar Rapids, and to bring back the coveted Two Diamonds award. One thing, though—whatever he does, Tim is to give a wide berth to a guy named Dean Ziegler.
Cedar Rapids is a comedy so tightly structured that it hits all its marks and mines all of its many laughs in a brisk 86 minutes. The clarity of the setup—cow-country Candide in the big city—prepares you for a mildly enjoyable romp. But the script's wildly scabrous dialogue gives the picture an unexpected kick. It's the kind of movie you want to see again while you're still watching it.
Tim's big adventure begins before he even checks into the convention hotel, when he encounters a freckle-faced hooker named Bree (Alia Shawkat) outside the entrance. He's oblivious to her come-on and just happy to find that the natives are so friendly. Inside, he marvels at the exotic sensory input: the swank lobby, the let's-get-sloshed bar, the big hotel swimming pool. ("The whole place smells like chlorine," Tim says. "It's like Barbados or something.") Upstairs, he discovers that he's sharing a suite with two other regional agents, one of them a buttoned-up black guy named Ron Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and the other a big-mouth party hound ("I smell free booze!") named—uh oh—Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly).
Tim is not himself a party hound, or even a drinker; but in between such compulsory ordeals as the prayer breakfasts run by prissy convention supremo Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith), Dean soon fixes that. Before long, the three men are joined by another agent, the foxy Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), a married mom who uses these annual gatherings as hot-to-trot time-outs from her prosaic real life. ("What happens in Cedar Rapids stays in Cedar Rapids," she actually says.) In no time, Tim is knocking back sweet sherry (his sudden drink of choice) and frolicking near-nakedly in the pool with Joan. Then he finds himself hijacked to a big pimps-and-bikers house party out in the sticks, where he samples the previously unknown delights of strong pot and heart-pounding powders. Is this any way to go about winning that Two Diamonds award?
Ed Helms is a virtuoso of swozzled innocence, and Anne Heche, so often undervalued, gives a light, lovely performance as a provincial hedonist with a world-class heart. But it's Reilly's Ziegler who seizes hold of the movie with his hilariously base needs and foul-mouthed bluster—and, as it turns out, a pretty big heart himself. Director Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt) intertwines these fine actors with crisp expertise, and he's created a comedy that feels like a breath of early spring in the winter movie graveyard.
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.