Ed Helms doesn’t have to stretch far from Dunder Mifflin to play straight-laced insurance salesman Tim Lippe in “Cedar Rapids,” which makes this long overdue promotion to leading man an easy step up for the good-natured comic. Though not as uproarious as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” director Miguel Arteta’s consistently entertaining white-collar laffer could do for Helms what that film did for Steve Carell, albeit on a much smaller commercial scale. Shrewdly launching its word-of-mouth campaign at Sundance (where the crowd-pleasing comedy feels conspicuously less arty than surrounding fare), Fox Searchlight plans to open “Rapids” on Feb. 11.
There’s still considerable risk involved in hanging a project on Helms — after all, “Office” mates Rainn Wilson and John Krasinki have yet to open a film on their own — though the actor has the added boost of widespread awareness, thanks to his supporting role in “The Hangover.” Broadly speaking, “Cedar Rapids” could almost be seen as a fuddy-duddy, Midwestern riff on that what-happens-in-Vegas theme; here, a sheltered small-town guy finds himself totally unprepared for the temptations that await him at a weekend-long insurance confab in the (relatively) big city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
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The color brown all but defines Lippe (rhymes with “hippie”), from his choice in clothes (the browner, the better) to his workplace (BrownStar Insurance) to the hometown he’s had neither the occasion nor the nerve to have left before (Brown River, Wisc.). In fact, the most exciting thing about Lippe is the fact that, at age 34, he’s finally managed to seduce his 7th-grade teacher, Mrs. Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver in a best-case casting coup).
When tragedy befalls BrownStar’s top salesman (Thomas Lennon), boss Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root) picks Lippe to represent the company at the annual ASMI conference, giving him the tall order of bringing back the org’s prestigious Two Diamonds Award. The prize is awarded each year by ultraconservative Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith), a stickler for Christian values whose acute moral judgment effectively turns the weekend into a run-off to be the most righteous agency.
Lippe is far too square and unimaginative to blow BrownStar’s chances. Even so, walking into the first big hotel of his life like a wide-eyed Dorothy discovering Oz, this nondescript non-drinker makes an easy target for corrupting influences, in this case roommates Ronald Wilkes (“The Wire’s” Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) and Dean Ziegler (consummate scene-stealer John C. Reilly), as well as hot-to-trot redhead Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche, alternately hilarious and heart-breaking, as the role requires). As far as these three are concerned, the annual ASMI conference is an excuse to kick back, get drunk and indulge.
Helms is at his best when reacting to others, which is one of the reasons he has made such an effective ensemble player in recent years. Shaping the material to the comic’s strengths, screenwriter Phil Johnston positions Lippe at the center of a multifront assault, caught between trying to impress Helgesson (who reports back on Lippe’s behavior to his boss) and loosening up for the rowdy bunch of fellow conventioneers.
“I’m basically pre-engaged,” Lippe tells his newfound friends, hoping to deflect Joan’s flirtatious advances and Ziegler’s inappropriate — and often uproarious — encouragement. Well beyond his comfort zone, Lippe is so oblivious, he doesn’t even realize the friendly young lady (Alia Shawkat) bumming cigarettes outside the hotel is for hire, and he’s totally unprepared for the alcohol, drugs and sex looming in his immediate future.
Despite the film’s rowdier elements, helmer Arteta handles Lippe’s awakening with such an affectionate touch, that even — or perhaps especially — conservative Midwesterners can appreciate its occasionally off-color humor. Though producers Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor’s satirical influence can be felt in the pic’s semi-condescending take on those stuck in what showbiz thinks of as “flyover” territory, “Cedar Rapids” is good natured enough to win everybody over in the end.
Production designer Doug Meerdink supplies the same exaggeratedly tacky, slightly dated interiors he brought to “The Informant,” adding a layer of background humor throughout. Tech credits are polished are across the board, with the film cutting together so cleanly, we can be sure that whatever improvisation occurred on set, only the bits that served the story survived onscreen. And yes, the film gives Helms an excuse to sing.