On paper, "Cedar Rapids" sounds like a no brainer. The Frank Capra-esque premise is familiar: a small town man is sent off to the big city where he struggles to adjust to the fast pace and shifty morals of metropolitan life. And when you line up a stacked roster of talent that includes John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Sigourney Weaver, Alia Shawkat, Rob Corddry and Stephen Root, the movie should pretty much just write itself. Figuratively speaking, that is. But unfortunately, Miguel Arteta seems to have literally taken what was probably a great treatment and hoped that his actors and actresses could do the rest with unfortunately middling results.
The film's problems are evident from its opening section set in the tiny town of Brown Valley. There we meet Tim Lippe (Helms), a naive, good-hearted insurance salesman for Brown Star insurance who always pitches the right plan for his clients and never tries to oversell them on premiums they don't need. He's also carrying on a relationship with his old school teacher Macy (Weaver) -- she comes by once a week for sex. Anyway, when Brown Star's top rep Roger Lemke (Thomas Lennon) suddenly dies right before he's about to leave for the annual insurance convention, Tim is called in to pinch hit. It's a huge job because for three years running, Brown Star has taken home the coveted Two Diamond award -- an honor bestowed on the agency that displays Godly values and a commitment to their customers. When he gets to the airport he's amusedly confounded that he has to empty his belongings and go through a metal detector even though he knows the security guard, and he's never even been a plane adding to the surreality of the situation. There is a fine line between naive and stupid that Arteta and Helms try to balance but they frequently jumps to both sides; without a clear foundation for the character of Tim, the film becomes less about a fish-out-of-water and more just a bunch of wacky things that happens to a guy who might as well be an idiot savant.
So, when Tim gets to Cedar Rapids he's oblivious to the offer of sex proffered by Bree (a charming Alia Shawkat who once again reminds us she needs to be cast in more projects), a prostitute working the convention, but he's utterly reluctant to hand over his credit card at the hotel desk fearing extraneous charges (again, this mixture of savviness and stupidity never quite gels). However, Tim faces his biggest challenge when he finds himself sharing a room with Ronald (Whitlock Jr.) and the unhinged Deanzie (Reilly), a rival agent he's been warned to stay away from. Tim has never seen a black man before and what could have been a great running gag doesn't amount to more than a panicked phone call to Macy and then it's promptly forgotten. As for Reilly, he's basically doing a refined version of his "Step Brothers" thing which is, admittedly, still a lot of fun. Thrown into the mix is Joan (Heche), one of the boys and a sexy agent who views these conventions a way to get escape her family life, if only momentarily.
Over the coming days, there are workshops and each agency will need to pitch the head of the insurance organization administration, Orin Helgesson (a slimy, self-righteous Kurtwood Smith), as to why they deserve the Two Diamond award. At first, Tim is focused on nailing his presentation (and his boss Bill Krogstad (Root) is constantly blowing up his cell for updates), but eventually, he succumbs to Ronald, Dean and Joan who stick to partying and goofing off. Naturally, Tim becomes consumed by the loose lifestyle of his colleagues -- he sleeps with Joan, breaks into the hotel pool at midnight and winds up at a party with Bree way out in the middle of nowhere where he smokes crack (and where Rob Corddry shows up to say about two throwaway menacing lines that any thick necked extra could've handled too). Yep, Tim has experienced everything big city life has to offer in barely a couple of days, but when he finds out just how Brown Star won the Two Diamond award (don't worry, you'll figure it about pretty quickly), he's brought crashing back to Earth.
Again, this all sounds like it should work brilliantly but there is too much in the brief 86-minute film that feels underdeveloped and tossed away. Miguel Arteta seems to have edited the film for the jokes instead of the story, so there are dangling plot threads and characters left to wilt throughout the picture. The most egregious is that of Dean, whose divorce from his wife is brought up more than once (as well as strong hints that he wants to win her back) only for it to be ignored in the second half of the film. Ronald only seems to be around to act as a bit of a counter to Dean and for Whitlock Jr. to spit his very funny impression of Omar from "The Wire" (which is one of the film's biggest laughs). But worse than all of this, the film is never as funny as it thinks it is. Sure, there is a lot of energy onscreen, but with Tim's uneven characterization wavering between man and child (Capra's characters were always men, but with a small town spirit; a crucial difference that would have been well served here) and the gags going from lighting farts on fire (seriously) to wittier wordplay, the film is all over the place.
It's curious to watch the closing credits and see Alexander Payne's name float by as a producer on the film. One wonders how "Cedar Rapids" would have turned out if he had directed. He surely would've wrung laughs out of character based on situations rather than simply plunging the cast into a zany treasure hunt or a talent show (yep, both those things happen). Something about the whole film feels like it was rushed -- we'd wager another pass or two on the script would have done wonders. But as it stands, the film's uneven tenor -- trying to balance "The Hangover"-style hijinks with small town sentiment -- just doesn't work. We're not ready to write off Arteta -- this writer thinks "Youth in Revolt" was unfairly slept on and showed more wit and verve than most comedies that came out last year -- but this is a film that needed to marinate a little longer.
All that said, "Cedar Rapids" is pedestrian enough that it should be good business (not to mention that a February release basically ensures it has no competition). Helms here seems to be taking a page from his "The Office" mate Steve Carell playing an everyday guy in an extraordinary situation. And he's charming and good enough, but in scenes with Reilly and even Shawkat, he's outshined and outmuscled. Moderately bemusing at best with only a few big, hearty laughs, "Cedar Rapids" is a ride that never gets as wild as it wants to. [B-]