Less broad than you might expect, given that its stellar comedy cast includes veterans from The Hangover, Anchorman, Step Brothers, and Office Space, director Miguel Arteta's introspective comedy still earns its fair share of laughs thanks to Phil Johnston's adroit screenplay, a talented cast, and a director skilled in maintaining an effective balance between comedy and drama. Yes, the influence of producer Alexander Payne can be felt in every line of dialogue, and though Cedar Rapids may be a bit too incidental to resonate with viewers as Sideways did back in 2004, there's enough honesty and solid characterization to give the film genuine gravity.
Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) sells insurance for a living. He's passionate about his career, so when the top salesman at the company dies on the eve of a big industry convention in Cedar Rapids, IA, his boss, Bill (Stephen Root), decides that Tim should take the trip to represent their company, and possibly accept a major award. Trouble is, not only has Tim never been on an airplane before, but he's in such a state of arrested development that he's even started sleeping with his former elementary school teacher Mrs. Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver). Arriving at the convention ready to put his best foot forward, Tim hits it off with his hotel roommate Ron (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), but is soon thrust out of his comfort zone when he learns they will be sharing a room with their amoral, hard-partying colleague Dean (John C. Reilly), whom Tim has been instructed to avoid at all costs. Later, when the three unlikely roommates meet up with fellow insurance slinger Joan (Anne Heche), the chemistry just clicks. However, when the ultra-conservative president of the entire organization (Kurtwood Smith) catches Tim in a compromising position, it all starts to fall apart. Now, if Tim can just shed his illusions and finally see the truth about the people he always looked up to, perhaps he can find the courage to recapture his integrity, and return home and face the future with a newfound sense of self-assurance.
The Hangover may have transformed Ed Helms into a bona fide comedy superstar, but it's movies like Cedar Rapids that may help to give his film career real legs. It's not that Helms' character in Cedar Rapids is so vastly different than his toothless persona in The Hangover (on the contrary, the two share some fairly distinct character qualities), but the fact that Johnston's screenplay gives that character some very expressive nuances that the supporting player-turned-topliner handles with genuine finesse. And Helms' energy is matched perfectly by co-stars Reilly and Heche, both of whom manage to hit just the right notes to give their characters real dimension. There aren't any big comedy set pieces in the film -- nothing that's likely to send viewers into convulsive fits of laughter -- instead, what Arteta and Johnston seem to be striving for is a steady undercurrent of clever insights and modest gags that all add up to one naïve man-child's realization that people can be incredibly complicated, and that it doesn't always pay to put our heroes on a pedestal. It would have been easy for Johnston to whip off a screenplay filled with anarchic gags poking fun at insurance agents, but he's actually using humor as a tool to offer insight into our penchant for making fast assumptions and prejudging others, rather than just going for our funny bone -- and though that approach may require a bit more patience on the part of the average viewer, it works. With an endearing character at the center of the action and a flair for the lost art of brevity, Johnston accomplishes in 86 minutes what would take most screenwriters 120 pages -- pared down -- and sends us walking away satisfied instead of overstuffed.
At the same time, Johnston's succinct screenwriting may also be Cedar Rapids' greatest drawback; the simplified story and restrained script effectively blunt Tim Lippe's otherwise-convincing character arc, and a steady stream of clever gags just seems to taper off instead of leading to a satisfying comic payoff. The characters in Cedar Rapids are more than stereotypes in sensible suits, and the film's low-key blend of comedy and drama matches their unique complexity rather nicely, even if it never fully commits to either in a way that's entirely satisfying.