Few of us live out our moral quandaries as loudly as mild-mannered insurance salesman Tim Lippe does in Cedar Rapids.
In this underappreciated, overachieving comic gem, the sheltered and naive Tim (Ed Helms) embarks on his first business convention, traveling all the way from Brown Valley, Wis., to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Though by no means a Vegas-style bacchanal (something Helms already explored in the less thoughtful let-loose comedy The Hangover), the convention does present Tim with tough moral choices, both personal and professional. Can this timid guy become a man of the world (or at least the upper Midwest) without selling his soul?
Screenwriter Phil Johnston and director Miguel Arteta give this question real consideration, all without skimping on the laughs. They get a lot of mileage out of Tim’s naivete (he bugs his eyes out at the sort of business perks that would put most people to sleep). Then, when that conceit begins to wear thin, they shift the movie into another comic gear, sending Tim on a series of outrageous escapades that leave him with a hangover, indeed. By its end, Cedar Rapids has hilariously traced one man’s morally perilous journey toward honesty and truth.
As Tim, Helms amusingly drips with desperation. Yet the richness of Cedar Rapids lies in its ensemble nature. Tim has been warned by his boss to stay away from the carousing Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) at the convention, but guess who gets assigned as his roommate? A tornado of insulting nicknames, dirty jokes and flowing booze, Ziegler’s sole mission is to turn the convention into a Mardi Gras parade.
Eager to march along is Joan Ostrowski-Fox (a revelatory Anne Heche). A woman among men at the convention, Joan nevertheless competes with Zeigler in the sexual harassment department, with Tim as her frequent target. Like Ziegler, she also sees the convention as an opportunity to indulge her wild side. This pair eventually chips away at Tim’s haughty personal standards, so that he’s soon downing shots of cream sherry, which leads to skinny-dipping in the hotel pool, which somehow leads to snorting drugs with a prostitute at some abandoned house party outside of town.
Most comedies would take a predictably preachy path from this point: play up all the bad behavior for titillating, comic effect, then condemn it in a hypocritical finale that involves Tim seeing the error of his ways. Cedar Rapids is more complicated – and more truthful. The movie adds another thread involving corruption within the convention awards program. Tim gets caught up in this scheme, too, and when he finally breaks down – realizing his moral compass has gone completely haywire – his bad-influence friends, of all people, help him find his way back on the upright path.