They were staples of popular literature, Broadway and the movies long before the movies could talk: comic yarns in which small-town naifs pack their bags and hit the big city, where they learn about life and love and what they’ve been missing.
It’s a hardy tradition, though naturally prone to patronizing attitudes about provincials and their simple ways. Maybe I wouldn’t notice the condescending part if I’d grown up somewhere other than a medium-size town in Wisconsin. Then again, the protagonist of the new comedy Cedar Rapids comes from a much, much tinier Wisconsin town, so I’m perfectly willing to laugh at him.
Modest in every way, the screenplay by Phil Johnston is enjoyable in the telling even when the details smack of contrivance. Ed Helms, the Daily Show alum who saved The Hangover from its crassest impulses, plays the most sincere insurance agent in (fictional) Brown Valley, Wis. The character’s name is Tim Lippe, pronounced “lippy,” a homebody who has never ventured far outside of his comfort zone, and who considers himself “basically pre-engaged” to the woman he’s seeing (Sigourney Weaver), his former seventh-grade teacher.
Then come a few startling developments nudging our hero into unexplored territory. When his fellow insurance agent is found dead due to autoerotic asphyxiation, Lippe is dispatched by the boss (Stephen Root) as the replacement representative attending the annual upper-Midwest insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (The tax breaks being better in Michigan, the film was shot there.) Lippe’s mission is to return home with the coveted Two Diamond award, a symbol of the prize-winning insurance agency’s commitment to community, customer service and God.
En route to learning that his superiors are really his moral inferiors, Lippe goes wild. His bad influences are an unlikely trio of agents from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska, respectively: a party-hearty boor played by John C. Reilly; a buttoned-down, early-to-bed fellow played by Isiah Whitlock Jr. (very likely Lippe’s first African-American acquaintance); and the married female agent played by Anne Heche, who offers Lippe a taste of transgressive honey.
Some of the bits underscoring Lippe’s credulousness are pretty lame (He’s never been to a hotel before? Anywhere?), and though the 87-minute film does not overstay its welcome, it’s on the thin side.
But Helms makes it work. In interviews, the actor has spoken about the fine line between character and caricature, and trying to keep the character and his situational discomfort honest as well as funny. I’d say he succeeded, and though he and his fellow actors are playing “types,” at least they’re recognizably human types (though Reilly’s character is a standard-issue boor). Little things keep Cedar Rapids interesting, such as Heche’s hushed, hurried call back home to the husband she has just cheated on. What the film lacks in energy it makes up for in geniality. And screenwriter Johnston, who hails from Wisconsin, manages to put the word “spendy” into Lippe’s mouth in the first five minutes of the movie, which sounded like home to me.
—MCT, Tribune Media Services