Is there anyone currently acting in movies with a better face than John C. Reilly?
Obviously, I don't mean that he is the most attractive person in movies. Just that I often find myself wondering how such an interesting mug ever got past Hollywood's beauty police. Reilly's doughy, clown face always sets him apart out in the sea of taught, angular faces with prominent cheekbones. That, along with his theatrical showmanship, make him a natural born character actor and the only choice to plain Dean ("Call me Deanz-y!") Ziegler - the cheerfully vulgar, perpetually drunk Dionysus of the annual Cedar Rapids conference of insurance salesmen. As good as the whole cast is here, and the ensemble performance is the main attraction, the movie more or less belongs to Reilly the second he strides on screen.
To Cedar Rapids also arrives Tim Lippe (pronounced "Lip-ee") played well by Ed Helms. Tim is a guy in his mid-thirties whose ideas about life have remained pretty much unaltered since they were locked in place around age twelve. He has never left his small Wisconsin home town and is working at the same insurance company where he got his first job running errands. He has never been on a plane, eyes alcoholic beverages warily, and is deeply impressed that his hotel has real honest-to-god palm trees next to pool. That his current love affair involves the grade school teacher he had a crush says all you need to know about his limited worldview.
The star salesman of Tim's company has just died under unspeakably scandalous conditions and Tim is dispatched to the conference with a long list of Do's - save the company, restore its wholesome reputation, win the coveted Two Diamond Award - and one single emphatic Don't - do not go anywhere near Dean Ziegler. Naturally Ziegler and Lippe end up sharing a room and it is not five minutes before Dean has decided that he and "Timbo" are to destined to become the very best of friends.
More time need not be spent on the plot of Cedar Rapids. Suffice it to say Ziegler serves as instigator for a flurry of modestly-scaled debauchery including such firsts for Tim as first time drunk, first fight, and first time sexual encounter with a woman within two decades of his own age. Part of the appeal of Cedar Rapids - or a flaw depending on whether or not you're amused - is how down to Earth all the shenanigans are. There is no Hangover-style tiger in the bathroom, no car chases, and the big fight scene mostly involves Helms being pummeled for a good thirty seconds. All the hijinks are more or less plausible for a group of middle-aged insurance salespeople.
I have no doubt that many moviegoers who are used to their big Hollywood comedies aggressively assaulting them with gags are going to label Cedar Rapids boring. It's not an explosive laugh riot and it isn't, with a few exceptions, trying to be. It's more of a smile movie, not a fall out of your chair laughing Animal House. You smile when John C. Reilly says a rapid series of inappropriate things during the morning pre-breakfast prayer. You smile when Lippe suffers a panic attack and gets stuck at the top of the climbing wall. And so on. For me, it worked. I smiled.
Cedar Rapids feels like a cousin of the films of that Maestro of the Midwest, Alexander Payne. (He was producer on this film) What director Miguel Arteta lacks in the depth and bite of Payne's films, he attempts to make up for in sweetness. The main charm of the film is in hanging out with the cast of comic pros who bring an unforced camaraderie to the material. They are all, when you get down to it, just likable people. Even blowhard Ziegler turns out to have more integrity and self-awareness than we first suspected, like when he confesses that he knows he is "kind of a jagoff."
Helms deserves praise for playing the character straight and not turning Lippe into a caricature. He is also not afraid to be unlikable in the first scenes of the film when he is such a close-minded boob that he would be intolerable were it not for the underlying innocence. The big discovery - or I should say rediscovery - of the film is Anne Heche as Joan the wife and mother who uses Cedar Rapids as a vacation from the responsibilities of family life. After a decade of tabloid nonsense and substandard projects I had forgotten what a presence she can be on screen. I haven't seen Heche be this charismatic since 97's Wag the Dog. She brings a lot of depth to a not incredibly deep part and crucially makes us buy that a fox like Joan could go for a dweeb like Lippe not in the least because she has so little to choose from.
Cedar Rapids fills out its cast with a deep bench of comic ringers including Stephen Root, Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat, Reno 911's Thomas Lennon, Rob Cordry, and the always welcome Kurtwood Smith. You would hope a collection of talent this impressive would produce a new comic masterpiece. That's not the case. Rapids is a decidedly average movie. The third act takes the story in a disappointingly routine direction and they take more than one easy shot at the small town characters. Comedies up to the level of such gifted performers are hard to come by these days in Hollywood. It seems to me that these actors can either use their talents playing second banana to special effects in a big budget time-waster or they can get together to elevate projects like Cedar Rapids into something worth checking out. They have my gratitude for choosing the later.
Verdict: Cedar Rapids isn't going to challenge Airplane! for the title of funniest movie ever, but if you are the kind of viewer who can get into this movie's low key, and you enjoy seeing a great collection of comic actors get an opportunity to flex their muscles, then you could do a lot worse. 6 out of 10