‘Cedar Rapids’ boasts good casting, Helms’ versatility

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In the 2009 box office giant “The Hangover,” Ed Helms (along with every other principal cast member) suddenly became a household name, and, like his “Hangover” co-stars, his next few projects have essentially been twists on the persona established in that movie. However, “Cedar Rapids” is smart in its use of Helms, taking what made him funny in “The Hangover” while making sure to invent a new character to go along with it.

Helms plays Tim Lippe, an insurance salesman who has never left his Wisconsin hometown until his firm’s star agent dies in a hilariously raunchy fashion, leaving Tim as the only candidate to attend a major insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s shouldered with the responsibility of continuing the firm’s tradition of winning the convention’s prestigious Two Diamonds award. Tim seems to be doing fine, until he befriends Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a recently divorced party animal who wastes no time in getting Tim into all kinds of alcohol-fueled trouble.

“Cedar Rapids” seems slightly dead in the water for most of its opening sequences, as it sets up the plot and introduces its cast, which includes Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s laid-back Ronald and Anne Heche’s Joan. In these opening scenes, Helms’ pervasive awkwardness is played as too over-the-top to be truly funny. Once his character begins to loosen up and have some fun, the film does the same. Many of its best moments feature the four main characters bonding or engaging in drunken antics, such as a late-night dip in the hotel’s pool that gives Reilly his funniest scene.

As far as the cast goes, there’s not a weak link. Helms’ boundless enthusiasm never gets old, but the film’s final act lets him show off some impressive dramatic chops as well. Reilly plays his typical boisterous man-child here but continues to make his characters hilariously watchable..
Rounding out the supporting cast is Whitlock, who brings a low-key wittiness to his scenes and makes a few hilarious references that should have fans of his character in “The Wire” rolling with laughter. Anne Heche is uncharacteristically likable as Tim’s love interest, playing a character that feels like a grown-up version of the hipster dream girl that’s populated many a coming-of-age story.

Despite a weak start, “Cedar Rapids” steadily becomes funnier and more interesting. The story is pleasantly unpredictable, with things getting a bit darker than one would expect, but the film stays warm and endearing at its center.

“Cedar Rapids” isn’t the kind of movie that’s remembered during awards season. In fact, it will probably be forgotten by summer. Nonetheless, it’s a sweet, funny film with a few great performances, characters and a pleasant, under-the-radar surprise that’s absolutely worth checking out.