A hotel-motel holiday in Cedar Rapids

Ed Helms: the well-intentioned insurance salesman

Were he not so damn hilarious we’d be worried about Ed Helms being typecast. Whether through his television work as a Daily Show correspondent or his work as Andy Bernard in The Office or his film credits in Evan Almighty or The Hangover he’s built his career around being an obnoxious whiteboy: Deliciously awkward if uniquely talented — wait till he starts his glee-club singing — he’s typically an oblivious gadfly with a heart of gold.

That doesn’t change with Cedar Rapids a film directed by Miguel Arteta (best known for Star Maps and his TV work with The Office and Freaks and Geeks ). Here Helms focuses more on the precious edges of Tim Lippe a small-town insurance salesman sent to an annual seminar in Cedar Rapids Iowa. Quaint by design it’s a highlight of Lippe’s life: He’s sent on behalf of Brown Star Insurance (ha ha) to bring home the Two Diamonds award certifying his company as the top of its class. It’s not rock-star stuff but hey isn’t that what’s supposed to make it funny?

True to Helms’s pedigree Lippe’s a man-child and yes this is a fumbly coming-of-age story. Stuck in his small-town existence — he’s never been on a plane is sleeping with his middle-school teacher (played by of all people Alien ass-kicker Sigourney Weaver) and has barely drank much beyond Shirley Temples — he’s bowled over by the bright lights of the er mid-sized Midwest. Take stock: This is a character who’s excited to be spending a night in a hotel.

Predictably vintage awkwardness ensues. He’s paired in a room with — gasp! — a mild black man (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.) becomes a protegé of a corrupt seen-it-all agent (the wild-eyed John C. Reilly) and is tempted by a red-headed party-minded Anne Heche. Rounding out his motley crew is hotel prostitute Bree (Alia Shawkat) who Lippe befriends by offering a butterscotch candy. Not for her services of course.

The standard fish-out-of-water histrionics then occur: Lippe gets drunk. Lippe caves into the temptations of booze Heche’s advances and eventually becomes attuned to the corruption that occurs within his industry (and at the event itself) all underlined by the latent absurdity of being stuck in a convention centre. And Helms mostly bumbles along with the majority of the quotable one-liners going to the always-drunk always-on Reilly (who at his best is caught with a garbage can over his head slugging scotch in a hotel pool).

This might appear to be a standard what-happens-in-Vegas narrative but what’ll save Cedar Rapids from the 7-11 DVD bins is its unlikely — if somewhat surprising — tenderness. Here Lippe’s naiveté doubles as well-intentioned honesty; this is a film that focuses on but never truly mocks rock-solid small-town values in the midst of transformation. While it’s not hard to laugh at Lippe’s innocence he’s not hard to root for either. This isn’t Helms’s reinvention but it’s a subtle reminder that few can straddle the obnoxious-lovable binaries so well.

That tenderness extends to other characters too. Cedar Rapids ’ judge-not moral code is similarly applied to the philanderin’ Heche — whose married-with-children character uses the convention as an escape — and Reilly whose old-school cynicism proves redeemable. Memorable it ain’t but Cedar Rapids proves plenty likable.