By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Decadence is a state of mind. When that state is Iowa as it is in Cedar Rapids, the running joke is that everything down and dirty is drenched with naivete. But rather than ridiculing Midwestern values — as Hollywood types could be suspected of doing — this movie embraces its inner yokel.
The sweet-natured, ordinary guy at the center of Cedar Rapids is Tim Lippe (rhymes with drippy), played by Ed Helms with enough world-virgin wonderment to make geeky seem heroic. Helms isn't doing anything other than what he does weekly on The Office or two summers ago in The Hangover, but he does it well. Tim is a social slouch, making it easier to get into anything over his head.
He's an insurance agent in a smaller town than Cedar Rapids that he has barely left in his lifetime. Tim has a sexy girlfriend of sorts (Sigourney Weaver) but even that's pathetic since she's the seventh-grade teacher he crushed on as a kid. He's at the bottom of middle management, although genuinely devoted to his clients. Not like the top-selling co-worker whose conduct unbecoming to Iowans pushes Tim into the spotlight where he sweats.
The agency is failing, and the boss (Stephen Root) wants to protect its coveted two diamond rating bestowed at the annual state convention. Tim must present the firm's case to the assembly, especially its sneaky president (Kurtwood Smith). He must also wipe the smear off his office's reputation, with particular orders to stay away from party animal Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly). Of course, they wind up sharing a hotel room.
Dean tempts Tim into drinking something stronger than cordials, skipping meetings and falling into bed with Joan Ostrowski-Fox (welcome back, Anne Heche). It's all quite shocking to someone awed by a hotel with free continental breakfast and a pool. Helms shifts from wide-eyed innocence to freshman naughty, from bumpkin guilt to uncertain courage. It's more than a solid comedic performance; it's a nicely rounded character.
That attention to personal detail is the best thing about Cedar Rapids. Director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Phil Johnston use signatures of road movies — drunken escapades, clashes with locals, a good-hearted hooker (Alia Shawkat) — among people stuck in one place; not only the hotel but their lives. Many one-liners are tinged with revealing regret or empty boasts, making this a movie of knowing smiles more than laughs out loud.
This isn't another The Hangover any more than Reilly's underrated Cyrus was another Step Brothers. Cedar Rapids and Cyrus' tones are similar, and both are misrepresented in ads. Arteta lets scenes run longer than standard comedy procedure dictates, which would be fatal except the script and actors are more interested in why these characters are here than what they do wacky.
Cedar Rapids is a racy but mature comedy about immature people, and that's rarer than someone who never got a free bagel at a Holiday Inn.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.