by Tim Ross
For anyone who’s gone to a convention, especially one in a not-so-exciting city, “Cedar Rapids” will bring back some funny and perhaps painful memories.
Mild-mannered insurance salesman Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) finds himself thrust into the spotlight when he has to replace a colleague at the last minute and attend an insurance convention in his place. Tim is from a small town in Wisconsin and even the flight – his first – to Cedar Rapids is a big deal.
Once everyone is in place at the convention, “Cedar Rapids” has too few moments of delight and too many moments of eye-rolling clunkers.
Helms is an able actor, but here he’s playing a fully grown man who’s oblivious to a prostitute when she tries to entice him, has never been on a plane and is pre-engaged to his former high school teacher (Sigourney Weaver).
The film pokes generally good-natured fun at Midwestern types, but surely even simple Midwestern folk have internet, television, call girls and actual engagement rings.
When the film explores the relationships between Tim and the conventioneers he meets, namely Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), Ronald “Ronimal” Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Ann Heche), “Cedar Rapids” unfolds in a funny and charming way.
But director Miguel Arteta and his cast sometimes wander away from subtle, effective situation comedy and into silly, exaggerated characterizations that are out of tune with the rest of the story. After all, if you dump a bunch of eccentric Midwestern insurance salespeople into a hotel for a drunken weekend, there’s plenty of comedy to be found without having to push it. They’re most funny when the humor comes from who their characters are, not how funny they can be as actors.
Arteta and Helms do mine Tim for wonderful details, including costume choices such as a cummerbund money belt and clothing that will remind you of the worst clothes you ever got as Christmas gifts.
And the supporting cast is superb. Reilly is at his best as the loud-mouthed, politically-incorrect Dean; Whitlock is spot-on as Ronimal, a salesman too devoted to his work; and Heche turns in a nice performance as a veteran insurance maven and adulteress with a soft side. Her performance is devoid of the sort of smirking portrayals of many of the characters earlier in her career.
The production design is particularly impressive. The hotel has the perfect small city feel: The paint scheme is dingy, the fake plants look, well, fake and the conference rooms put you to sleep before the long-winded speeches even start. Even the bar where they party looks exactly like what one would imagine a hotel bar in Iowa would.
“Cedar Rapids” certainly transports you to the place and time they strive for and you almost feel as if you’re at the convention with them. But once they have you there, they try too hard to keep you by falling back on broad comic notes and situations even more absurd than what’s inherently offered by the setting, where there’s already plenty of comedy to be had. “Cedar Rapids” finds some, but not all of it.