Miguel Arteta's new comedy Cedar Rapids is Apatowlite. It's about an insurance salesman who's never been out of his small Wisconsin town and finds the big city thrust upon him when he attends a conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. But the movie marks Ed Helms' promotion from ensemble player to leading man. Helms, best known from The Daily Show, The Office and The Hangover, is a character actor at heart, and Cedar Rapids' strength is that it's built on characters, fleshed out by a cast talented enough to turn what could be idiotic clichés into something considerably more enjoyable.
Helms plays Tim Lippe, a guy who's spent his entire life in Brown Valley, Wisconsin. He's a nice guy with a decent heart who was orphaned young and found his calling selling insurance. When his company's star salesman falls prey to an autoerotic asphyxiation event, his boss (Stephen Root) sends Tim to the annual regional convention in the big city, with strict instructions to impress head honcho Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith) and to stay away from industry bad apple Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly).
This is the first time Tim's left his tiny town, and the big city is, of course, a den of sin and temptation. So, it isn't long before Tim gives in to all of them. He rooms and drinks with Ziegler and another agent, Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr.); befriends hotel hooker Bree (Alia Shawkat); and hooks up with the MILFy Joan (Anne Heche). All of this opens his eyes to the authority figures in his life, and he has to figure out who really has his best interests in mind.
It's formulaic, but it works—mostly. Sure, there are some jokes that fall flat or are too shrill, and the last 10 minutes devolve into a predictable conclusion. However, like Tim's journey in the film, it's all about the trip. You see, Helms plays Tim straight. He's a naive smalltown guy who wears a money belt under a tucked-in shirt. Still, he's not an idiot. He's not even a virgin, having hooked up with his seventh-grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver in a casting coup). He just has a lot to learn, and that's what turns Cedar Rapids into something of a coming-of-age story, albeit one featuring a 34-year-old man.
What Tim finds is that all the people about whom he's been warned, all the people who initially terrify him, aren't so bad. Sure, they're off-color, but it's a convention, for God's sake. John C. Reilly's Dean is basically a dirty-joke machine. The thing is, even though he's a fat, drunken, self-professed fuck-up, he's also the only guy in the movie who actually has his priorities straight. Reilly can go over-the-top with the best of them, but he never goes too far. And Anne Heche gives a performance that's far funnier and more appealing than you'll expect.
Cedar Rapids, opening Friday, Feb. 18, is well-written and filled with warmth, but it's still a small movie about small things with a formulaic ending. And while it's enjoyable, it's not particularly memorable. Which is kind of like visiting Cedar Rapids in real life.