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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Cedar Rapids

Ed Helms plays straight man in Heartland comedy

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For Tim Lippe, a lifelong resident of the fictitious Brown Valley, Wis., an insurance sales convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is like a holiday in Paris. Small-town boy lost in the big city (not!) is the high concept at the heart of Cedar Rapids, a comedy whose foundation begins to crack upon learning that Lippe's firm sends him to the convention as the pinch-hitter replacement when their star agent dies of autoerotic asphyxiation. Funny? Sure, if your sense of humor is funny in the way that rotten tomatoes smell.

Cedar Rapids
is that kind of movie, lurching between genuinely amusing and pathetically tasteless. TV comic Ed Helms ("The Daily Show," "The Office") plays well enough as mild-mannered Tim, a 30-something whose straight-arrow life bends only at the sight of his seventh-grade teacher, the widowed Mrs. Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver), with whom he enjoys a weekly tryst. Unpracticed in the ways of love, Tim mistakes sexual attraction for commitment. He describes himself as "pre-engaged" to a woman who—we have every reason to suspect—would be aghast at any thought of marriage.

Tim, who has neither flown before nor ventured far from his hometown, carries traveler's checks in a cummerbund money belt (would that get past the TSA screeners?) and is puzzled when the hotel clerk automatically asks to make an impression of his credit card. When a girl asks for a cigarette, he offers her a butterscotch instead. He could be endearing if he wasn't sometimes such a self-righteous prig. But what's funnier than Tim's fish-out-of-water comedy is the humor rippling through the water itself. If Cedar Rapids had tried a little harder, it could have been a tart satire on a world of identically bland hotels, the earnest tedium of convention speakers and motivational videos and the unctuous hypocrisy of insurance companies draped in the American flag and evangelical Protestantism. Cedar Rapids lands some punches on these targets, only to fall back on gay gags.

Playing Dean Ziegler as a bumptious, sexually crude and usually soused agent from a rival company, John C. Reilly is the raging bull in a china shop of heartland propriety and stands out against Helms' increasingly aggrieved straight man. The two men share a hotel suite with Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), evidently the first black insurance agent Tim has ever seen, and quietly gay as well. In Hollywood, Ronald's interest in antiquing and dabbling in community theater are indicators of sexual preference, although Cedar Rapids gains comic traction when Ronald uses his thespian skills to ward off hayseed ruffians from giving Tim a beating. Crackers scare easily at the sight of a large, aggressive black man. Anne Heche joins the story as the ordinary insurance gal from some Nebraska town who thinks Tim is sweet.

Cedar Rapids
is a movie that will make most anyone laugh at one moment or another, even if sometimes in the wrong places. Regardless of where it was actually filmed, director Miguel Arteta found locations that resemble most any low-slung Dairyland small town with its tightly clustered downtown, pair of steeples piercing the sky and lonesome train track to remind residents of other places further down the line, even if they only happen to be Cedar Rapids.