Ed Helms, John C. Reilly Find the Heart in ‘Cedar Rapids’

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CHICAGO – It is great to witness a star being born. Ed Helms, who so memorably stole the show in “The Hangover,” breaks out even further with a career defining performance as Tim Lippe in the warm and funny new comedy, “Cedar Rapids.” John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Sigourney Weaver and Isiah Whitlock Jr. lend essential support.

Helms plays an insurance salesman, a lifer in a small town branch office who truly cares about his job. The spirit he has developed because of this love becomes a life force that is about to infiltrate an insurance association gathering and change everything, even though he personally wants no change in his life.

Tim Lippe gets the assignment as a last minute fill-in, because the star salesman of the branch has been found dead, in a compromising position. His mission is to secure the two-diamond rating for the branch from the association president (Kurtwood Smith), under the watchful speed dial of the owner (Stephen Root), who is stuck at his daughter’s wedding. Taking his first airplane ride, Tim Lippe bids adieu to his lover, his ex-junior high teacher Macy (Sigourney Weaver), and heads to the rough environs of a cookie-cutter hotel in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Arriving at the convention, he makes friends with a “party girl” outside the hotel named Bree (Alia Shawkat), and shares a suite with Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Dean (John C. Reilly). Tim has been warned to stay away from Dean by his boss, and his suite mate proves the warning effective by his profane, boorish behavior. Rounding out Tim’s convention pals is Joan (Anne Heche), who uses her time away from home for a little fun.

Formidable Foursome: John C. Reilly (Dean), Ed Helms (Tim), Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Ronald) and Anne Heche (Joan) in ‘Cedar Rapids’
John C. Reilly (Dean), Ed Helms (Tim), Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Ronald) and Anne Heche (Joan) in ‘Cedar Rapids’
Photo credit: Zach Rosenthal for © Twentieth Century Fox

Ronald, Tim, Dean and Joan form a “Wizard of Oz” style fab four who must navigate the yellow brick road of business and personal morality. During their journey they will encounter hypocrisy, duplicity, lust and even some integrity. Just another day in paradise.

Ed Helms strikes a blow for humanity with his portrayal of Tim. He is asked, like Alice in Wonderland, to do those impossible things that he had never done before. One of his great characteristics is his true love of helping people through his business, which is in direct contrast to the clock punchers in the rest of the branch. This love is what permeates his fellow travelers, and develops their story against the tide of the pretenders.

And all the high-level humor is developed from the characters. John C. Reilly is at his best with this material; he balances his party animal with a luxurious honesty. His character is not perfect, but he instinctively confronts his emotional pain. Anne Heche loves the tease, but also uses the situations to her advantage, and again, never lies about it. Isiah Whitlock Jr., playing a straitlaced workaholic, garners big laughs by simply playing against that type.

There is something intriguing about the “Emerald City” aspect of Cedar Rapids. It is portrayed as generally peaceful, almost beautiful in the background of the Cedar River. It is the ideal space for the foursome to frolic…they are hermetically sealed in the McHotel with food, liquor and shelter. Everything happens within the confines of the hallways and rooms, with the smell of chlorine from the centerpiece pool. This relatable setting is perfectly used, as conference rooms and bars become purveyors of revealing truths.

Director Miguel Arteta (”Youth in Revolt,” “The Good Girl”) creates a real Frank Capra/Billy Wilder style moral environment, aided unerringly by Phil Johnson’s screenplay. Ed Helms is Mr. Smith by way of Jack Lemmon in “The Apartment,” and Arteta guides that innocence through a minefield, and those explosions correctly alter the hero’s path. It is clean narrative that generates substantial laughs by surprise and character energy. Arteta, born in Puerto Rico, is a true American storyteller.

Come Together: Ed Helms and Anne Heche in ‘Cedar Rapids’
Come Together: Ed Helms and Anne Heche in ‘Cedar Rapids’
Photo credit: Zach Rosenthal for © Twentieth Century Fox

What also makes Cedar Rapids so great is its familiarity. All the characters feel real, as if you met them yesterday, at the store or at the desk next to you. They are the everyday people who struggle, armed with emotional and educational tools that sometimes aren’t as sophisticated as we might expect, but allows them to survive in a cruel world.

Ed Helms, the supporting cast, Miguel Arteta, Phil Johnson and producer Alexander Payne respect that survival instinct so completely, that they’ve created a Valentine for this weekend to all of us, we the people constantly trying to do the right thing.

“Cedar Rapids” has a limited release in Chicago on February 11th. See local listings for theaters and showtimes. Featuring Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock, Jr., Sigourney Weaver, Alia Shawkat and Kurtwood Smith. Screenplay by Phil Johnson, directed by Miquel Arteta. Rated “R.” Read the HollywoodChicago.com Cedar Rapids interviews with Ed Helms by clicking here, and director Miguel Arteta by clicking here.

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2011 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

Mr. Leland's picture

Out of the ordinary

I rarely pay to see comedies in theatres - usually the big screen is a waste of space for what passes as comedy these days. As you note, Cedar Rapids is an exception. I think the key here is that, contrary to the usual mook/party formula, these characters are self-aware and capable of noting how their actions affect those around them. That’s very rare. Even though I cringed during the “glass cock” sequence and squirmed when the plot went down the “David v. Goliath” road, the film succeeded because the characters are so strong and so well acted. I think this is Reilly’s best work. I liked Helms much better here than in The Hangover or The Office. I was pleased his character wasn’t presented as a total neophyte - he’s bangin’ Sigourney Weaver for chrissakes - because that innocents-abroad schtick has been done to death (Big, Elf, 40 y.o. Virgin, etc.), giving the character some realistic depth that allows the audience to empathize with his experiences. Otherwise the whole thing would have folded under the weight of typical movie plot pap.

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