The title “Cedar Rapids” isn’t a comment on the real Cedar Rapids. The geographical location doesn’t matter, because this movie takes place in the anonymous spaces that could be Anywhere, USA: a businessman’s motel with the enclosed atrium around a central swimming pool, featureless bars and breakfa
st places, a nondescript park with kiddie swings.
The point is that this unexciting landscape is all new to Tim Lippe (Ed Helms, lately of “The Office” and “The Hangover”), the supremely inexperienced insurance salesman who’s been sent to Cedar Rapids for the annual convention.
Tim finds it all terribly exotic, but he’s also got a job to do: Win the coveted “Two Diamond” award from the local ratings board.
What he must do to secure the award for his small-town Wisconsin company forms the comedy of “Cedar Rapids,” a pretty wonderful movie directed by Miguel Arteta and written by Phil Johnston. There’s a special kind of balancing act with movies that are both loud and vulgar but have a sneaky melancholy undertone, and this film pulls that off.
Tim’s the kind of naïf who mistakes his hometown affair with his former middle-school teacher (Sigourney Weaver) for true love. He’s got a lot to learn in Cedar Rapids, and his musketeers are three veteran convention-goers who appoint themselves his teachers.
He has roommates in the form of Ronald “Ronimal” Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a fussy but good-natured nerd, and the epically boisterous Dean “Deanzie” Ziegler, whose high spirits are a thorn in the side of the phony-baloney piety of convention head Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith).
If I tell you that Deanzie is played by John C. Reilly, I realize that some of you will think: Enough already, with Reilly as the loudmouth boor. He was hilarious in “Talladega Nights,” but as he keeps schlumping his way through “Step Brothers” and “Cyrus,” maybe the act is getting a little old.
But Deanzie is an absolute jewel of a John C. Reilly performance, and typical of what is terrific about this movie. Reilly is obnoxious, uproarious and sad, usually within the same sentence, as he calls for another round of drinks or a dirty joke. Somewhere in your life, you’ve known a guy exactly like this.
The third teacher in Tim’s education is Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), a married woman for whom the annual convention weekend is an escape from her settled, normal life. Heche is superb at being both silly and bittersweet, but by now you’re seeing a pattern.
“Cedar Rapids” catches a tone similar to “Napoleon Dynamite,” in that it zanily sketches its characters’ foibles while maintaining complete sympathy for them. And the broad comedy has a good-hearted tone: This convention is a wild adventure for Tim, the kind he deserves in more ways than one.
I could’ve done without the end credits scenes — the movie has a just-right final sequence — but I guess every comedy must end with something during the end credits. The rest of the movie easily earns the Two Diamond award.