Somewhere inside Cedar Rapids, with Ed Helms as a very-small-town insurance salesman sent to a convention in Iowa’s big city, there’s a scathing Christopher Guest satire waiting to get out. There’s also a raucous Hangover-style comedy waiting to get out. Too bad neither one takes over.
What we get instead is a genial, sporadically funny movie that settles in the mushy middle. Director Miguel Arteta’s best films – The Good Girl, Chuck & Buck -- were written by Mike White; Phil Johnston’s Cedar Rapids screenplay doesn’t have a voice of its own.
The film does have its comic moments though. It begins in the satire camp, with Helms playing good-hearted Tim Lippe, a variation on his characters from The Office and The Hangover: a straight-laced guy whose endearing innocence veers awfully close to ignorance. He’s having an affair with his former teacher (Sigourney Weaver) which he takes seriously enough to try to give her a promise ring. When a colleague at his family-friendly insurance agency dies, Tim doesn’t fathom that the cause was auto-erotic asphyxiation.
As Tim nervously replaces the coworker at the insurance convention, the movie veers into a mild version of Hangover mode. His hotel roommate and mentor is a buttoned-down agent played with wry precision by Isiah Whitlock Jr. Soon they’re joined by John C. Reilly as the loud, ready-to-party boor. It’s a stereotypical role but Reilly makes it fun, and honestly this often sagging movie needs his outsized comic energy. Anne Heche is there as a married colleague ready for a fling with Tim.
Between the wild plot twists – a friendly prostitute takes Tim to a drug-fueled party, and his new friends have to rescue him – there are a few jabs at big-business hypocrisy. But the point is to see Tim fly off the rails and come back again to his centered self. As it heads toward a feel-good ending, Cedar Rapids earnestly embraces Tim’s honest, apple-pie values, which may be a great idea if you’re living in real-world America, but doesn’t make for the most entertaining time at the movies.