March 11, 2011 in Features

Humanity shines in screwball comedy ‘Cedar Rapids’

Roger Moore Orlando Sentinel
 

From left, John C. Reilly, Ed Helms and Isiah Whitlock Jr. star in “Cedar Rapids.”
(Full-size photo)

There aren’t many things in this world as funny as simple, clueless sincerity. The TV series “The Office” gets this.

“Cedar Rapids,” the new insurance salesman-convention comedy starring Ed Helms (who plays Andy on the NBC series), may be “The Office” meets “The Hangover,” with plenty of lowdown, “Oh no they didn’t” laughs.

But what makes it work is its footing in reality and the heartfelt naivete of its hero.

Helms is Tim Lippe, small-town insurance agent, middle man on the totem pole at his Brown Valley, Wis., agency. He’s spent his whole working life there, convincing clients that “I’m gonna take care of you” and always keeping his word.

But just as reliably, he’s slighted by the boss (Stephen Root, a comic volcano here), always passed over for that coveted insurance agents’ convention in favor of the smarmy star salesman, Roger (Thomas Lennon).

But tragedy strikes and Roger’s death (it’s a funny one) means that Tim must get on an airplane (for the first time), fly to Cedar Rapids, Iowa (for the first time) – to be away from home for the first time.

Tim leaves behind his lover – who happens to be his former sixth-grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver) – straps on a money belt full of traveler’s checks and ventures into the big, wide world.

He has two missions: win the coveted “two diamond” status from the insurance association, and “avoid Dean Ziegler like the plague!”

Ziegler is trouble. Ziegler is unholy. And he is played to gregarious, grotesque perfection by John C. Reilly.

He’s that blowhard who figures his loud voice, quickness with a crude quip or coarse nickname and his ability to hold his liquor make him the life of the party. Naturally, Tim is forced to share a room with “Deanzie” and “an Afro-American” agent (Isiah Whitlock Jr., deadpan, in on the joke and a hoot).

Tim is quickly caught up in a whirl of intrigue, back-stabbing and hard partying, just another soul pulled into the vortex of Deanzie.

It’s not just the booze and general rule-flouting. There’s also the tempting, flirtatious and crude Joan (Anne Heche), an old hand at these leave-home/cut-loose conventions.

Director Miguel Arteta (“Youth in Revolt”) makes this a movie with way-out moments that are never that way out. It’s a farce with sexual come-ons and actual sex – the Boy Scout Tim’s first encounter with a hooker and a crack pipe – but “Cedar Rapids” never loses track of the humanity of its characters: screwballs, one and all, but sometimes warm people who never cross over into caricature.

Heche lets us sense Joan’s resignation to a dull, depressing life in “Oh my god” (i.e., Omaha) Nebraska. Reilly never lets Deanzie turn so gonzo that we don’t see the divorced-man loneliness that his bonhomie hides.

And Helms keeps Tim’s “gee whiz” innocence just this side of reality.

He’s unworldly and a bit of a Pollyanna. But listen to him talk about that first childhood encounter with an insurance agent, a man whose job it was to “get people’s lives back on track,” and you too will think, “Yeah, they really are heroes.” And laugh.

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