Arteta’s indie comedy brings big laughs

By Drew Hunt

Ed Helms is a burgeoning comedic star, beginning to establish a viable film career. In his day job at “The Office,” Helms plays the pompously boisterous Andy Bernard, a character who radiates charisma as much as he does arrogance. Yet in his breakout role—2009’s bro-fest “The Hangover”—the actor took a turn for the nebbish in his portrayal of Stu, a different kind of character whom Helms embodied with ease. As a follow up, Helms took the lead role in “Cedar Rapids,” a film about an insurance expo held in—you guessed it—Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

An assortment of the Midwest’s finest agents gather for the annual insurance conference, including Helms’ character Tim Lippe, a woefully naive yet incessantly likeable guy. Each agent is vying for the coveted Two Diamonds Award, which is given to the region’s top insurance agency. When Tim’s hotshot boss unexpectedly bites the dust, it’s up to him to sweep in and claim the award by proving he’s an excellent insurance agent, and also an individual of upstanding moral integrity.

Tim accepts the challenge with a rash earnestness that eventually fades as the unsightly aspects of the conference reveal themselves.

Before long, Tim—the straight-laced, non-drinker—is boozing and causing mayhem with a trio of ne’er-do-wells and ASMI veterans: Isiah Whitlock Jr. as the aloof Ronald Wilkes, aka The Ronimal; John C. Reilly as Dean Ziegler, aka Deanzie; and a surprisingly poignant Anne Heche as Joan Ostrowski-Fox, aka O-Fox.

As a unit, they embrace the sobering triviality of the Midwest’s largest insurance agent expo and turn the extended weekend into their personal “Animal House,” eagerly initiating Tim in their debaucheries.

Hilarity thus ensues. There’s an infectious chemistry between the principal leads and the film employs a crude kind of humor that also exposes the more subtle nuances of the narrative. Though unapologetically sophomoric, “Cedar Rapids” is the rare kind of comedy that brings laughs and pathos in equal dosage. It’s a film about coping with the banalities of the human existence and the disenchantment that arises when one gets a glimpse of the vile realities that exist below the illusory surface of life.

As the film progresses, we get an idea of how each character copes with this fateful monotony. Tim finds himself experiencing this disillusion for the first time and his existential dilemma is the source of the film’s laughs and the emotional yardstick by which the audience measures the gravity of the situation.

Back home, Tim is having a fling with a newly single seventh-grade teacher—played by Sigourney Weaver—to whom he’s “basically pre-engaged.” When the nature of their relationship is exposed, Tim’s reaction elicits laughs amid tones of sadness. There’s universality to his plight. Helms’ portrayal of Tim is funny but never pitiful.

There are plenty of light moments in “Cedar Rapids” that render the film raucously enjoyable. Reilly, in particular, emits belly laughs as the boorish Dean—the out-and-out life of the party whose unapologetic loutishness actively defies the stuffy nature of the expo. Somewhere along the line, Reilly has perfected the role of the deliberately contrarian man-child, and his turn in “Cedar Rapids” is the funniest he’s ever been on screen.

Helms, meanwhile, continues to prove himself successful on the big screen. When bolstered with a smart script and capable supporting cast, his abilities as an actor become even more apparent.