CEDAR RAPIDS: An Innocent Man in Rowdy Middle America (Review)
With its crude humor, abundance of stereotypes, and naive-beyond-belief protagonist, played by Ed Helms, Cedar Rapids is as likely to provoke rolled eyeballs as it is to induce belly laughs. Dig a little deeper, however, and you'll find a seriocomic character study that is refreshing in its sincerity.
That sincerity is not immediately obvious. The film, directed by Miguel Arteta (Star Maps, Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl, Youth in Revolt) struggles to establish a consistent tone in its opening scenes. Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) appears to be a contented man, working as an insurance agent at a small office in the small town of Brown Valley, Wisconsin. He's more than happy to be bedding Macy (Sigourney Weaver), his former childhood schoolteacher, on a regular basis, though he clearly pines for a longer-term relationship.
When the agency's star salesman dies unexpectedly, the agency's owner, Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root), calls upon Tim to deliver an all-important presentation at an annual insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Tim has never traveled much, if at all, and feels completely inadequate to the task, but Bill presses him into service and innocent Tim is sent into a lion's den of iniquity in Cedar Rapids, represented as the heart of Middle America.
Upon arrival, the befuddled Tim is too ignorant to realize that the woman who stands outside the hotel and asks him if he wants a "date" is clearly a prostitute. At the front desk, he is wary about handing over his credit card to the hotel clerk. ("I was under the impression that you accepted travelers' checks.") When he gets to his room, which he is to share with a colleague, he is shocked to see that his roommate is "Afro-American"!!!
All these moments -- and more -- raise doubts about Tim's level of intelligence. It's one thing to have lived your entire life in a small, rural town. It's quite another to believe that a man in his 30s would have such limited knowledge of the world. Don't they have television or the Internet in Brown Valley, Wisconsin? Don't they have a library?
Then again, even among his fellow Brown Valley residents, Tim appears to be a retrograde personality. Bill, who initially is seen speaking to Tim in a fatherly manner, eventually is shown angrily snapping commands at him, raising doubts about what kind of "father" he was to Tim, who lost his own father in his teen years. Tim's lover Macy is much kinder and more loving when she talks to Tim, but even then she speaks as though she's still a schoolteacher and he's still her pupil. That's part of the joke, of course, but it makes it more difficult to accept Tim as a concoction born from empathy on the part of his creator(s), rather than an object made for mocking.
As the film plays on, however, we get a better handle on Tim's personality as he interacts with five key figures at the convention. Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a brash, profane and very successful agent, apparently motivated entirely by animalistic urges, is the one man that Bill told Tim to stay away from. So, of course, Tim discovers that Dean will be rooming with him and Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). Ronald is a conservative single man who, like Tim, does not approve of Dean's rambunctious manner. Joan (Anne Heche) is not quite as crude as Dean, but she, too, leans toward the wild side at the convention, and is quickly paired up with the skeptical (and loyal to his girlfriend) Tim.
Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith) is the president of the organization that hosts the convention, an organization that bestows the much coveted "Two Diamond Award" upon the agency that supposedly displays the most integrity and adherence to godly principles (?!). Rounding out the main players is Bree (Alia Shawkat), the hotel prostitute with a heart of gold.
The other agents provide a full range of worldliness, with Dean the most depraved, followed by Joan, a married woman who likes to sow her wild oats at the out-of-town convention, and then Ronald, who is not adverse to having a drink or two. But each one has their own personal limits on what they feel is appropriate behavior. You may, quite rightly, question those limits, but they function as a measure of their respective personalities.
That's what Tim has to play against. He's not a complete innocent; he's been sleeping with a former teacher, for one thing! And while he's ripe for reinvention, he's not ready to reject his old values out of hand. In other words, he's a man in his 30s who is finally entering his post-adolescent (or maybe even mid-adolescent) period.
Tim is the thorniest character to nail down, and, ultimately, he's still hard to buy on the evidence of what's on the screen. Even though the role was reportedly tailored to Helms, it still needed to be tethered more firmly to reality.
Cedar Rapids is not a perfectly-realized film; its sense of humor will be too broad for some and too slight for others. Once through the early, spottier patches, though, it really hits its stride and establishes the tone of conviction it needs to succeed, revealing itself as an amusing, affectionate portrait of a man who is ready to change his life.