© 2011 Ray Wong
Once in a while, a small Indie comedy is like a breath of fresh air that reminds us special effects don't have to be the reason to make a movie. The human condition is.
Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) has been an insurance agent in a small town for years, but he never pushes himself into a leadership role. In fact, he seems like a 14-year-old in a grown man's body, and is perfectly happy with his life. He is having an affair with his ex-grade school teacher Macy (Sigourney Weaver), but he believes he's going to marry her one day. When a star employee "accidentally" killed himself, Tim's boss (Stephen Root), sends Tim to the annual insurance conference in Cedar Rapids, Idaho. Tim's job is to win the fourth Two-Diamond Award for the company, or he may lose his job.
Once there, Tim is like a fish out of water. Or maybe a tiger who's just been let back into the wilds. He makes unlikely friends with steady, quiet Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), obnoxious brute Dean (John C. Reilly), and red-headed beauty Joan (Anne Heche). Uptight, frightened, and sheltered, Tim begins to loosen up when his new-found friends show him what the conference is all about: Having a good time.
But soon things get out of control, and Tim is at risk of losing everything he values. Worst of all, he may lose his chance to win the award. Or so he thinks. In reality, Tim is about to lose his integrity. Through his adventures and ordeals, Tim learns a valuable lesson.
Ed Helms (The Hangover) is coming into his own as a comedic lead. He is spot on as the sheltered, not-too-smart man-child. Helms underplays the role with restraint and control, but he's still funny. He plays the character with such heart that we feel like laughing with him, not at him. John C. Reilly (Cyrus) is a hoot as the crude and rude insurance salesman. But through his repulsiveness emerges a likable character with surprising depth.
Anne Heche (The Other Guys) is lively as flirtatious Joan. She plays the character as fun, smart, feisty but vulnerable. Good job. Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Main Street) has the difficult job of playing the straight guy in this ensemble piece, but he comes across as genuine and adorable.
Supporting cast includes Sigourney Weaver (Avatar) as the object of Tim's affection. She's a class act. Stephen Root (Red State) is effectively smarmy as Tim's boss, and Kurtwood Smith (Entry Level) is marvelous as the president of the association. Alia Shawkat (The Lie) is sweet as a hooker. Both Rob Corddry (Hot Tub Time Machine) and Mike O'Malley (Glee) have fun playing their minor roles as a thug and religious insurance guy respectively.
Writer Phil Johnston (Ghosts/Aliens) takes a low-key approach with this comedy. Don't get me wrong. The material can be raunchy, crude and outrageous, but the plot unfolds naturally in a relatively random way, as if we were actually eavesdropping on these characters. I can't say the characters are surprising -- I sort of guessed where Johnston was taking us with them -- but they are very interesting and entertaining, and they feel genuine. In fact, the plot is rather secondary; it's a simple coming-of-age plot. But the characters are what make this movie work. The dialogue and situations seem realistic, despite some of the more outrageous moments. It's humorous without forcing the comedy.
Director Miguel Arteta's (Youth in Revolt) style is also low key. The production isn't really handsome. In fact, it's rather grungy. Perhaps that's the idea: Cedar Rapids is not known for being a modern cosmopolitan. But the casting is great. The actors have great chemistry together and they seem to like each other genuinely. The movie has a down-to-earth, almost homely feel, reminding me of the nostalgic Adventureland. No, it's not a handsome production, but it's realistic.
Not knowing what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised by this small Indie film. It has great, interesting and likable characters, a simple and easy-to-follow plot, and themes that are relatable: friendship, life, integrity, and loyalty. I totally enjoyed it, even though I still don't have any interest in visiting Cedar Rapids any time soon.
Stars: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Stephen Root, Kurtwood Smith, Alia Shawkat, Rob Corddry, Mike O'Malley, Sigourney Weaver
Director: Miguel Arteta
Writer: Phil Johnston
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: R for crude sexual content, language and drug use
Running Time: 87 minutes
Script – 8
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 8
Production – 7
Total – 7.9 out of 10