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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Tim (Ed Helms) and his new friends after an exciting
insurance convention in Cedar Rapids.

3 Stars

Cedar Rapids is a comedy anomaly. It sits somewhere between the fish-out-of-water and arrested development comedy genres, and it earns its laughs through character growth and interaction. Its naturally funny, but even more so, it's charming. In fact, the harder it tries to be funny, the less successful it is. Thankfully, those moments are few and far between, and the cast, for the most part, gives strong enough performances to guide the ship through even the flattest of gags.

Released in February, and out on DVD this week, director Miguel Arteta's film never really got the release or the attention it deserved, but it's well worth your time if you're looking for a comedic antidote to The Hangover Part II. Despite the presence of Ed Helms, the two films couldn't have less in common.

Tim Lippe (Helms) is an idealistic insurance agent for Brownstar in Brown Valley, Wisconsin. He believes selling insurance to be a cool profession because he's on the front lines helping people get their lives back on track. When his co-worker and hero dies (from autoerotic asphyxiation, mind you), Tim is shipped off to Cedar Rapids for the annual ASMI conference. There, his goal is to prove the company deserves to keep its Two Diamond awards for general excellence in the industry. Something unexpected happens, however, when Tim meets some new friends. Dean (John C. Reilly), Ronald (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.), and Joan (Anne Heche) bring some much-needed excitement into Tim's safe, childlike life. But it might be too much too fast, as he puts the Two Diamonds—and the future of his company—in jeopardy.

Tim is a really interesting character—much more interesting than I anticipated from a comedy starring Helms. He's a doe-eyed optimist who likes cuddling more than sex, but he's smart and has a decent head on his shoulders. As he transforms, you can't help but wonder whether his friends are doing him right. They certainly have his best interests at heart, but TIm is content with his life, and maybe the world could use a few more Tim Lippes.

Every other character has an important role to play in Tim's transformation, which really serves as the backbone of the film. Dean is the wild best friend Tim has never had. He drinks too much and tells more dirty jokes in a day than Tim has probably ever heard in his life. But, like Tim, he's vulnerable, and ultimately, it's probably good that they have each other. Ronald is Tim's link to the way he used to live. He's not nearly as unaware as Tim is when it comes to the ways of the world, but he doesn't need to party or sleep around to have a good time. He could have been a very minor, comic-relief character, but Arteta does more with him. He's a regular reminder to Tim that he's not strange and that his life isn't so bad.

Then there's Joan. She's the love interest in the film, but like the other characters, there's a lot more depth to her and her storyline doesn't quite play out as you might think. She's a family woman, and though things are far from perfect at home, she has no desire to uproot her life for Tim. As she puts it, "What happens in Cedar Rapids stays in Cedar Rapids." It's clear that this woman clings to this conference as maybe her only escape from her life, and while that might not seem like much to us, it's enough to keep her happy and fulfilled.

As you could probably guess, much of the film's success hinges on the acting. Three of the performances are exceptional. Helms tones down his The Office and The Hangover buffoonery to make Tim a three-dimensional and somewhat relatable individual. Whitlock steals every scene he's in, especially one near the end when he saves Tim from a potential rumble. Meanwhile, Heche gives maybe the best performance of her career, recalling Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air. She's smart, sexy, funny, and despite her less-than-perfect moral compass, we care a lot about her. Unfortunately, John C. Reilly sticks out like a sore thumb. He's given the unfortunate duty of acting drunk most of the time. As a result, he's over-the-top and never disappears beneath the skin of his character. The film works best when it avoids broad slapstick humor, and unsurpisingly, Reilly is its chief source.

Cedar Rapids really is a rare film nowadays—one that's genuinely sweet and full of insight while still being quite funny. I'm not sure I ever really laughed out loud, but I did have a big smile on my face throughout the entire picture, and with so many uninspired films in theaters right now, that's about all you can really ask for.

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