Why are there so many out-of-shape, middle-aged men in Cedar Rapids running around in their underwear? Because it’s meant to be funny. It isn’t.
Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is living the life of an insurance salesman in middle America — meaning he’s incredibly uptight, always does what he’s told, and wears a lot of pleated pants. Which is also why he’s the perfect man to bring home the coveted Two Diamond award of excellence from a local conference, after the top dog at his insurance company dies practicing some good old-fashioned autoerotic asphyxiation. Except, since Tim has never left his tiny hometown, the trip to Cedar Rapids is a big ”GD” deal (which stands for gosh darn in Tim’s provincial parlance).
Before leaving, Tim’s boss only gives him one mandate: avoid conference clown Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) at all costs. Wouldn’t you know it, Tim ends up rooming with Ziegler. Hilarity is supposed to ensue in the form of over-drinking, general mayhem, and just a touch of malarkey. Tim and Ziegler’s friendship is inevitable, as is the bond he forms with his (gasp!) minority roommate Roland (The Wire‘s Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and his blossoming relationship with the beautiful Joan (Anne Heche).
All of this fun and a couple of midnight excursions through the hotel in his oversized tighty-whities jeopardizes his chances to bring home the coveted award, because commitment to God is a part of the judging.
In this insurance world, there’s no separation of church and Statewide.
Writer Phil Johnston relies heavily on two things for laughs: outrageous, bawdy one-liners and Tim’s ”oh gosh” approach to life in Cedar Rapids. On both accounts, he beats an already tired device into the ground.
Tim’s earnest offer to help a flight attendant in the case of an emergency is cute; his reluctance to hand over his credit card when checking into the hotel is expected; his ignorance that Bree (Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat) is a prostitute is pushing it. Everything else that follows for the next hour is just overkill, and when he starts smoking crack and snorting cocaine, you wonder how the shark he’s in the middle of jumping made it to land-locked Cedar Rapids.
Much of the film’s heart comes from Helms’ ability to embrace Tim’s innocence. Were Helms to push the character any further along the man-child spectrum though, you’d start to wonder if Tim wasn’t just a bit touched. As it is, the first time he has sex is with his former teacher (Sigourney Weaver), and it’s creepy in a To Catch a Predator way. Nevertheless, Helms keeps Tim mostly lovable, like a puppy dog that gets into trouble, but is so cute that you can’t really blame him.
Ziegler is clearly the most boisterous of the group, playing the foil to everyone else’s stereotypical insurance geek persona, and this allows Reilly to let loose. Naturally it’s Ziegler who delivers the outrageous lines, which are mainly infantile and base, though some are funny enough to warrant a laugh. The film’s attempt to delve into Ziegler’s failed marriage is cursory at best, and never really resonates. Since Reilly’s performance is the most entertaining in the film, this fault doesn’t really mar the character.
Whitlock, who can deliver deadpan dialogue with the best of them, has to rely on jokes referencing The Wire to get laughs, though your basic racial jokes are thrown in for some diversity.
Yet that’s more than Heche is given to work with. Joan is smitten by Tim’s wide-eyed innocent take on the world, but also ready to throw down with the boys for a night on the town. The character ends up feeling like a cheap knock-off of Vera Farmiga’s Alex from Up in the Air, as does Heche’s performance.
Director Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt) has a fundamental story-arc problem with the film that results in an anticlimactic resolution. The payoff just never lands. Tim’s life-changing events are so out of proportion with the rest of his existence that he becomes a cartoon. Only one scene between Helms and Weaver has any real emotional resonance; everything else is just preparation for the next joke, and there’s only a fifty-fifty chance it’s going to make you laugh.
Cedar Rapids is kind of like an insurance policy that you never need to use: in the end, you can’t help but feel it was a waste of money.