Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, the Midwest satirists behind Election and About Schmidt, didn’t write or direct Cedar Rapids, but with its deadpan evocation of Wisconsin and Iowa, focus on the insurance industry, and recognizable stars dressing down to play provincial, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it as their work. In fact, Payne and Taylor produced this comedy, directed by Miguel Arteta, who has had his own fun with small-town ennui in movies like The Good Girl and Youth in Revolt.
Even with the usually astute Arteta, Payne, and Taylor on board, Cedar Rapids feels like a potential minefield of condescension—not to mention derivation. Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) has never left his hometown of Brown Valley, Wisconsin, and when his superstar coworker is unable to make a presentation at the annual insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, he’s drafted to attend instead. Marveling at airplanes, hotel rooms, and keynote addresses, Helms amplifies his eager-to-please, uptight gooniness even past his work on TV as Andy Bernard. And so, at first the movie looks like a crowd-pleasing, faux-indie mix of The Office and About Schmidt (also about an insurance salesman), with a bit of The 40-Year-Old Virgin to boot.
Yet for all of its unhip Midwest signifiers—wood paneling, religious pieties, travelers checks—Cedar Rapids is surprisingly sweet and often amusing, if rarely riotous. Tim’s naiveté is pitched so broadly that it actually goes beyond caricature and becomes specific again: he’s too arrested to qualify as a satire of any group. Helms gamely absorbs any digs at wide-eyed yokels, leaving his new convention friends—playful Joan (Anne Heche), nerdy Ronald (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), and gregarious Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), whom Tim has been told to avoid at all costs—to come off as smart and savvy.
And so, apart from Tim’s singular goofiness and the convention’s cartoonishly pious leader Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith), the insurance folk aren’t targets for mockery. The actors, working from Phil Johnston’s screenplay, make the joshing, cornball conventioneers’ patter jovial and charming, turning mind-numbing routines humane. Even Ziegler’s encyclopedic euphemisms for vaginas seem harmless, almost weirdly affectionate in their attention to cunnilingus.
This lack of offense is largely due to Reilly’s facility with teddy-bear boorishness. Johnston’s jokes aren’t always razor-sharp as written, but the actors, rather than producing smug exaggerations or distracting with their famous faces, make most of the movie snap. Whitlock nails the cadences of Ronald’s ordered seriousness (“Classic Ronald: it’s barely even a joke!” Ziegler cries, delighted after Ronald tries his hand at humor) and makes some meta-references to The Wire. And Stephen Root has fun as Tim’s boss, a man who manages to be unceasingly vulgar with hardly a curse word.
These characterizations are particularly refreshing in a film that values friendship over romance as a means of removing Tim from his Brown Valley bubble: his bonds with Ronald and Ziegler get just as much attention as his flirtation with Joan. Still, Tim’s backstory feels contrived to allow his education: despite his unflagging friendliness, he appears to not have any hometown relationships beyond a single romantic entanglement, more casual than he realizes, with his former teacher (Sigourney Weaver, nicely restrained).
But Arteta doesn’t linger on this faint implausibility. Cedar Rapids may be his swiftest movie yet, zipping around the titular Iowa city with the restlessness of a genuine convention attendee. The movie is so fleet and likable, in fact, that it hurries toward a too-easy conclusion, with big speeches, ultimatums, and lessons that put too fine a point on Tim’s awakening. For an indie movie, this probably seems hopelessly square. But as it arrives in theaters in the dead of winter, it’s also a warm little diversion.