‘We’re all just selling something’ is the weighty moral of Youth In Revolt director Miguel Arteta’s new coming-of-age comedy, and without the intriguing (and unlikely) pairing of Ed Helms and John C. Reilly, it could be argued that marketing a film about a naïve insurance salesman from small-town, Midwest America who discovers himself on a business trip would be a hard sell in itself. But Cedar Rapids has that endearing indie ingredient: the triumph of the underdog. Who better than The Hangover’s star Helms – who plays respectable but uptight and hapless Stu in the hit 2009 comedy – to take the helm in this buddy story, what with the anticipated forthcoming sequel out in May. Cedar Rapids is not only Helms ‘warm up’ act to the former, but also a solid leading-man effort.
Cedar Rapids sees Helms as 34-year-old insurance agent Tim Lippe who has worked in insurance all his life and has never left his tiny hometown of Brown Valley, Wisconsin. After the controversial death of his company’s top salesman, Tim must travel to the ‘hotbed of debauchery’, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for the annual ASMI insurance convention, with the aim of winning the coveted ‘two-diamonds’ award that his company has bagged three years in a row. However, even though it’s all smiles, hearty backslaps and fun team-building exercises, something rotten lies at its core, and it takes the distraction of a trio of convention veterans (played by Reilly, Anne Heche and Isiah Whitlock Jr.) to make a real man out of by-the-book Tim, as well as expose the convention’s uglier side.
Helms comfortably takes on the kind of good-hearted geek role we normally associate with Steve Carell – Tim is merely a thirtysome clone of Carell’s 40 Year Old Virgin, a lovable man-child full of virtue. As such a character is a rarity in today’s jaded world, there’s always something appealing about getting to see the world still through childlike eyes. For the immature humour in this film to work, though, it requires reminiscing back to the deviant glee of the classroom innocent finally getting their hands dirty.
However, Arteta doesn’t just put Tim up for ridicule, but he gives him a strong set of values that we all aspire to and eventually wins all over, making him more layered than first depicted. In fact, as Tim is the ‘immature kid’ – as highlighted by his odd and slightly uncomfortable sexual relationship with his former teacher, Ms Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver), we tend to forgive him more as he spins off the rails. Indeed, Arteta’s character isn’t that different from other small-town, wide-eyed ones of past films (including Steve Zahn’s unforgettable role in Management), but he has a disarming charm and a refreshing lack of baggage, so is content with his lot and very easy to like. But Tim is by no means an angel, and like an exploring teen, Helms expertly brings out his silly, serious and fearful side as he encounters the pitfalls of ‘adult’ life.
Helms by no means carries the film alone. Arteta again develops a set of quirky characters that we can really get behind, as they experience their own personal highs and lows. That said Reilly, Heche and Whitlock Jr. to some extent play character types we’ve seen them in before, though merely play to their strengths. Reilly is loud, brash ‘Ziegler’ who’s nursing a broken heart. Heche is independent (but married), adventurous and smart Joan ‘O Fox’ Ostrowski-Fox who is charmed by Tim, and Whitlock Jr. is the voice of reason. Although initially mocking Tim, whilst playing up to certain stereotypes and scenarios in the film that induce a couple of groans, they all learn new things about themselves and each other while stepping out of their comfort zones. It’s their evolution that’s probably more interesting than Tim’s as they reinvent themselves.
Expect the decadent running jokes and lowbrow smutty antics, but moments of sobering clarity, and you’ll not be disappointed with Arteta’s oddball bunch of characters in Cedar Rapids. You do root for all these misfits in the end, even after they show some less than impressive personality traits – and you need to stay for the end credits, as is becoming the norm these days, like some lazy plot after-thought. This crowd-pleaser is not Arteta’s defining piece, but its feel-good nature and big heart bolster your spirits.