By Patrick Holohan
In "Cedar Rapids," Ed Helms stars for the first time as Tim Lippe, a more naïve, sympathetic version of Helms' "The Office" character, Andy Bernard. Lippe is an insurance salesman who is sent from his tiny hometown to the slightly less small, eponymous city in Iowa to participate in an insurance conference after his agency's star broker dies in a tragic autoerotic asphyxiation accident.
Director Miguel Arteta ("Youth in Revolt") has the perfect trio of Deanzie (John C. Reilly,) Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr.,) and Joan (Anne Heche) to help break the uptight and sheltered Lippe out of his shell through binge drinking and obnoxious stunts. Reilly steals every scene he's in as what seems to be the next stage for his character Dale in "Step Brothers." He strings together curses, sexual situations, and great physical comedy, while letting Whitlock play the straight man and Heche the cool girl who's interested in Lippe despite his extreme awkwardness.
Arteta and writer Phil Johnston poke fun at small town, Midwestern life in a sort of endearing way, without ever seeming like they're mocking suburban folk. That Lippe is overwhelmed by Cedar Rapids, a region of the country most Americans don't even know exists, instead of a massive metropolis like New York or Chicago, makes the film believable and helps it to avoid becoming the cliché it could have been.
As a result, the most enjoyable parts of the movie are when Lippe is completely overwhelmed by simple things, such as his disbelief that he has to go through security at a local airport, confusion and terror over having to give the hotel an imprint of his credit card, and his casual befriending of a prostitute, played by Alia Shawkat (Maeby Funke, for the "Arrested Development" fans. It is strange to see her in this kind of role but she plays it well).
The rest of the supporting cast is also strong, with key scenes from Rob Corddry ("The Daily Show," "Hot Tub Time Machine') as a guy who beats the hell out of Lippe, Sigourney Weaver as Lippe's former teacher and current friend with benefits (just as weird as it sounds), and Kurtwood Smith ("That ‘70s Show") as the show runner of the insurance convention.
Arteta doesn't focus much on the main plot, where Lippe is trying to win a prestigious insurance award of excellence for his company. Instead, Lippe spends 87 minutes fornicating (his word), drinking Cream Sherry shots, earning $45 gift cards to Japanese restaurants, and running around naked or in his uncomfortably tight-looking underwear. It's an updated, funnier take on the classic "loss of innocence" archetype, made possible by Helms as Lippe. Helms is so good it's almost impossible not to laugh at him in one shot and wanting to give him a hug in the next.
"Cedar Rapids" is the rare R-rated comedy that can believably pull off raunchy and sweet without being sentimental, with mostly Reilly and Helms to thank for hitting both sides.