Viewers may very well spend much of Cedar Rapids trying to figure out exactly what the filmmakers were going for. It's marketed as a comedy, and often played as one, but it's not laugh-out-loud funny; it's more odd and quirky, off-balance with flashes of tragedy and darkness. Its aim becomes clearer when the end credits reveal the names of the producers: Jim Burke, Jim Taylor, and Alexander Payne. Payne and Taylor, of course, are the filmmaking team (they co-write, Payne directs) responsible for Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways. Director Miguel Arteta was trying to make an Alexander Payne movie. Trouble is, only Alexander Payne can make an Alexander Payne movie; that's the definition of a unique filmmaker. Arteta is an interesting director himself--his credits include Chuck and Buck, Youth in Revolt, and the wonderful The Good Girl--so it's unfortunate that he's ended up making someone else's film.
That said, as far as Payne knock-offs go, Cedar Rapids isn't half bad. Ed Helms stars as Tim Lippe, second-tier salesman for Brown Star Insurance; na´ve and likable, he's a bit of a wallflower. "Tim Lippe, I didn't even see you there!" remarks lead salesman Roger Lemke (Thomas Lennon) at a staff party, and that pretty much sums him up. He's having a rather sad affair with his middle-school teacher (Sigourney Weaver); he wants to get serious, but she informs him that they're "just having a good time here."
Tim is sent to the big annual insurance convention in Cedar Rapids when Lemke dies under circumstances that are rather unfortunate for the company's family-friendly image. For the last three years, Lemke has won the region's coveted "Two Diamond" award; if Tim can't do the same, the company might be in trouble. But the story is really less about that little bit of corporate intrigue than it is about Tim's loss of innocence; under the guidance of his roommates (played by John C. Reilly and The Wire's Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and sexy agent Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), the teetotalling square leans to let loose and stand up for himself, or something like that.
Helms's performance is a tricky one, and not entirely successful. The film cashes in big-time on his best quality--his absolute sincerity--but he sometimes overplays; he's charming at first, then a little irritating. The script puts him through some fairly over-the-top paces, and while his inherent believability helps ground the performance, it's touch and go and times. Ultimately, you like this guy, even when he's utterly exhausting. (All of that said, Helms may ultimately be more of a supporting player than a point man.)
Arteta wisely surrounds him with a crackerjack ensemble: aside from the aforementioned players, he's got the invaluable Stephen Root as Tim's boss, Kurtwood Smith as an industry muckety-muck, Rob Corddry as a bullying dick, Alia Shawkat as the hotel hooker, and Mike Birbiglia (not well used, unfortunately) as a hotel clerk. Reilly has fun playing the loud vulgarian whose profanities are cheerfully inventive, but perhaps the most intriguing performer in the film is Anne Heche, back from the TV/DTV wilderness with a turn so fresh and complicated, you remember why we were all so excited about her back in the mid-'90s. As Joan, the mother and wife who views her week in Cedar Rapids with a Vegas-style "what happens here, stays here" eye, she's weird, likable, and terrific.
Phil Johnston's screenplay doesn't entirely work; its off-key sense of humor occasionally misfires, it sometimes goes for the cheap (if funny) joke, and the ending (or, more accurately, endings) are entirely too pat. But it's got a darker side than expected, which somehow co-exists with a fundamental, Midwestern sweetness. Cedar Rapids isn't a great movie; it's too uneven and unfocused for that. But it is indisputably engaging, and that cast is something else.