CEDAR RAPIDS is a sweet tale with of innocence lost and happiness found. In the grand tradition of MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and MR DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, Mr Lippe (Ed Helms) goes to the titular city for an insurance convention and discovers the real world in the big city, and the further, more disturbing real world of his own small hamlet of Brown Valley, WI. Deliberately low-key, and deliberately sly about everyones pre-conceived notions, including those of the audience, it plays out at a leisurely pace that belies the turmoil with which Mr. Lippe is about to wrestle.
Tim Lippe is an open-hearted guy who hasnt quite gotten over being left an orphan as age 16. Hes not bitter. Hes not disturbed. Rather its that hes never progressed into emotional adulthood, despite the affair hes having with his 8th-grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver). Or perhaps thats the reason for it, and for his wanting to become pre-engaged to her. Perhaps its also why hes so starry-eyed over everyone he knows and about selling insurance, though hes always coming in second behind the Brown Star agencys golden boy. When said golden boy dies during a sexually dicey interlude, its up to Tim take his place at the annual regional conference in Cedar Rapids. This is about more than hobnobbing and networking, its about winning the coveted Two-Diamond Award for the fourth year in a row, something golden boy had a lock on before his awkward demise. The ANSI President (Kurtwood Smith), the one and only judge of such things, gifts it only to agencies and agents who demonstrate family values and high moral standards. In other words, more pressure than Tims ever had before, made all the more tricky by the fact that hes never left his hometown, and is so unworldly that he cant work out what a working girl (Alia Shawat) is actually suggesting to him when he arrives at his hotel, never mind that leaves him awestruck is a facility that defines the concept of business conventional.
This is a film that grows on you, starting out as an unpretentious and quirky little enterprise, then raising the stakes gradually as Tim meets the jaded veterans of the convention, and learns to drink something stronger than cream sherry and party harder than the morning breakfast meetings. There are the traditional tropes, to be sure. Tim loosens up thanks to the ebulliently profane Ziegler (John C. Reilly), the one person he was told by his boss (Stephen Root) to avoid like the plague. He more than loosens up thanks to Joan (Anne Heche), the comely insurance agent looking for the kicks that only a comparatively big city can give her, and Ron (Isaiah Whitlock, Jr.), the first African-American Tims ever met, who remains calm despite the panicked reaction he garners when Tim first lays eyes on him. Its Tims growing suspicions that life and people are much more complex than hes thought until now, and perhaps not as upstanding, that keeps things interesting. Helms radiates the necessary sweet innocence without beings stodgy or judgmental. Hence a locker room scene that finds him meeting his idol, President Helgesson for the first time when both are stark naked takes on intriguing subtexts, particularly when Helgesson wants a big bear hug.
The film never makes the mistake of sending Tim on a deliberately reckless debauched spree, though the one-night stand and the drug-fueled party that form his education are more debauchery than Tim could have ever imagined. They just sort of happen and though he suffers varying degrees of guilt and shame, its the guilt and shame of a decent man whos had a good time. He may never spree in quite the same way again, but hes proud of the bruises, literal and figurative.
It also doesnt make the mistake of forcing Tim into a tailspin of either rage or cynicism for even a millisecond. It takes the risky chance of making the good guy more than a match for what he meets without losing himself in the process. Essentially a fable for our times, CEDAR RAPIDS is fueled by solid performances, thoughtful writing, and a wistfully subversive optimism.