Some movies are kingmakers. The Hangover is such a film. Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms — and Mike Tyson, for that matter — have all experienced upgrades in their screen careers as a direct result of that picture. Its phenomenal success transformed ensemble players into leads — or the subject of multiple documentaries, in Tyson’s case.
In the consistently agreeable, if not exactly groundbreaking, new comedy from indie auteur Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl), Helms played the lead role, collaborated with first-timer Phil Johnston on the script and acted in the role of executive producer. When you compare this with his industry standing a mere two or three years ago, he suddenly looks like Orson Welles.
Cedar Rapids is the latest contribution to the canon of contemporary workplace comedies, à la Mike Judge’s classic Office Space; Up in the Air (to a significant degree); and, of course, “The Office,” to which Helms was promoted on the basis of his work record on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”
The actor has carved a niche as a lovable, put-upon nerd. His latest role doesn’t so much depart from that profile as add a degree of dimension to it. His Tim Lippe is a 34-year-old insurance salesman who has never left his quiet hometown of Brown Valley, Wis. He’s a well-meaning but wounded square who lost his parents at an early age and has compensated by bonding with his boss (Office Space’s Stephen Root) and having an affair with his seventh-grade teacher, icily played by Sigourney Weaver. She’s so world weary she makes Mrs. Robinson look like a candy striper.
When his branch’s top salesman dies under singularly embarrassing circumstances, Lippe is tapped to attend an annual industry convention in his place, and the fun begins. Venturing beyond the city limits for the first time, the agent is as wide eyed and filled with wonder as Alice on the other side of the looking glass.
Not your typical reaction to visiting Iowa. The picture’s tone is established early on in a brilliant scene at the airport. Helms’ character is such a sheltered innocent, he’s never flown before and actually gets excited at the prospect of going through security.
Things get even more exciting for Tim at his destination. “It’s like I’m in Barbados,” he gushes after beholding his hotel’s indoor pool. In short order, he’s matched up with the motley crew who will accompany him on his warped journey of self-discovery. There’s a convention vet, played by Isiah Whitlock Jr., who has a very funny obsession with the HBO drama “The Wire” (funny because he was a regular on it in real life). Naturally, he’s the first black man Tim has ever met.
John C. Reilly is a hoot and a half as a potty-mouthed party animal. And Anne Heche delivers a surprisingly touching performance in the role of a married woman who lives for her yearly chance to lose herself in short-term romance. When she’s introduced to Helms, it’s lust at first sight.
Things get out of hand, of course. An evening that begins with Tim reluctantly sipping his first drink (a manly cream sherry) isn’t nearly over when the mild-mannered fish out of water winds up partying with a prostitute and a shack full of crackheads.
Which may sound like something you’ve seen before — and, to some extent, it is. Arteta’s latest bears obvious similarities to The Hangover, for example. As I said, we’re not breaking a lot of new comic ground here.
What sets Cedar Rapids apart is its goodhearted spirit. It would have been easy for the filmmakers to serve up their gaggle of rubes and misfits as figures to laugh at. Their achievement consists of ensuring that they’re people we come to like and laugh with, instead. This may be a small movie about small-timers, but a good many of its laughs are massive.