Film Review: Cedar Rapids

There’s a whole lot of swearin’ in this otherwise sweet film about conventioneers gone wild, with producer Alexander Payne further establishing his comic brand.

Whether you enjoy Cedar Rapids, described by director Miguel Arteta as a coming-of-age story about a grown man, will depend upon your willingness to embrace the movie’s premise, that an insurance agent in his mid-30s functions in the world with a 12-year-old mentality. We’re not talking baseball caps worn backwards or addictions to videogames or compulsive texting, which would peg just about every pro-football player and maybe as many hedge-fund managers; no, we’re dealing with a guy who, seduced by his former grade-school teacher-turned-cougar, conducts his assignations in his childhood bed where, post-coitus, he presents her with a heart-shaped friendship ring as a token of pre-engagement.

Arteta (Chuck & Buck, Youth in Revolt), working with debut scriptwriter Phil Johnston, manages to convince us that Tim Leppe (Ed Helms) isn’t just another annoying escapee from an Adam Sandler film. He’s sheltered and inexperienced, but sweet and well-intentioned: Imagine Mickey Rooney teleported from the 1930s into contemporary America—Brown Valley, Minnesota, to be precise—unaware that Charlie Sheen has become the role model for modern males. In one amusing sequence, the filmmakers reveal that Tim has never flown on an airplane or rented a car or checked into a hotel—and we buy it all. But balancing lovable innocence with tedious idiocy proves too much for Arteta, despite that he never resorts to ridicule or lapses into mockery. And that’s the film’s saving grace. For all its straining of credulity, Cedar Rapids stays grounded when it comes to sentiment. Tim may be absurdly naïve, but he’s fundamentally likeable, as are most of the characters in this vulgar yet incongruously heartwarming film.

If some of the above sounds familiar, it’s because Cedar Rapids is produced by Alexander Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways), along with Jim Burke. Their plotbook is well-thumbed but infinitely adaptable, usually involving idiosyncratic characters on a road trip fueled by copious amounts of alcohol, ignited by unlikely assignations with feisty women, detoured by the inevitable encounter with biker types and rerouted back toward order and sanity with our antiheroes refreshed from their adventures. In this instance, Tim finds himself shipped off (against his will) to the annual insurance convention by his hypertensive boss, Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root), with explicit instructions to come back with the industry’s coveted Two Diamonds award. To ease his introduction to the big city, Krogstad has paired Tim with nice-guy Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) and has warned him to avoid (with extreme prejudice) the madcap Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), apparently the most unscrupulous and uncouth insurance salesman in the Midwest. Things go awry quickly when “Deanzie” gets booked into the same suite with Ron and Tim, and fellow conventioneer Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche) takes a prurient interest in the weirdly appealing new guy. Alas, what happens in Cedar Rapids does not stay in Cedar Rapids.

The cast includes Sigourney Weaver as Tim’s objet d’amour, ex-teacher Macy Vanderhei; Kurtwood Smith as Orin Helgesson, the oleaginous and hypocritical president of the insurance association; and Alia Shawkat as Bree, the happy hooker. Everyone seems to be enjoying himself—the movie exudes a contagious geniality—although Reilly has the most fun with the foul-mouthed, self-loathing, yet fundamentally decent Deanzie, at one point combining the lampshade-on-your-head gag with the proverbial drunken-skinny-dip-in-the-hotel-pool. The movie’s mise-en-scène and comic bits border on the tired and clichéd—there’s even a scavenger hunt—but somehow the overall package comes up fresh if not new. None of the actors seems the least embarrassed to reveal his less-than-buff body to get a laugh, and that by itself recommends the film.