Cedar Rapids is a comedy out of the Napoleon Dynamite school, where the main character is so relentlessly naive and dopey that you begin to wonder if he might actually be suffering from some sort of mental disability. Tim Lippe (Ed Helms, The Hangover) is an insurance salesman in a small Wisconsin town who is charged with representing his company at a regional conference in Cedar Rapids. Tim doesn’t drink, has never been on an airplane, apparently has never even stayed in a hotel — a babe in the woods about to be preyed upon by the much wilier insurance agents who populate this slightly sleazy annual conference. Why we’re supposed to care about such an entirely unconvincing character is anyone’s guess.
Written by Phil Johnston, making his feature debut, and directed by Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl, Youth in Revolt), Cedar Rapids is ostensibly about whether Tim will secure for his company the all-elusive “two-diamond” stamp of approval from the governing body’s president (Kurtwood Smith).
Without it, we are asked to believe, Tim and his boss (Stephen Root) will be financially ruined. This nonplot, though, is mostly an excuse to set Tim against a series of oddball insurance salespeople, including a married woman looking for a fling (Anne Heche) and a foul-mouthed slime ball (John C. Reilly) who leeches onto Tim.
For most of its running time, the movie putters along inoffensively; it resembles those long-forgotten John Candy comedies from the 1980s (Summer Rental, The Great Outdoors) in which a ludicrous central figure is surrounded by far greater ludicrousness. But these sorts of shaggy dog stories require at least a little bit of bite, and Cedar Rapids has none. Do the filmmakers really think making fun of Middle America conventioneers is cutting-edge?
And whereas an actor like the late Candy might have brought a gentle charm to Tim, Helms never fully commits — he wants to make sure the audience knows that he’s much more intelligent than the character he’s playing. Helms got his start on The Daily Show and the comedy here is of the same, hip-hip-wink-wink variety. But the result feels smug instead of sweet, cynical instead of silly, making it a comedy without heart.
Cast: Ed Helms, Stephen Root, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Kurtwood Smith.
Director: Miguel Arteta.
Screenwriter: Phil Johnston.
Producers: Jim Burke, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor.
A Fox Searchlight release. Running time: 85 minutes. Nudity, sexual content, strong language. Opens Friday March 4 at: area theaters.