Produced by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor—the writing team responsible for Election, About Schmidt, and other affectionate comic tours through the wood-paneled banality of Middle America—Cedar Rapids bears their imprint beyond the limits of their screen credit. Much like the typical Payne/Taylor film, it walks a thin line between good-natured mockery and hayseed condescension, and none too steadily, either, going overboard on unfashionable clothing and brownish-beige Midwest bric-a-brac. Even the premise throws up a warning flag, following a downy innocent from small-town Wisconsin as he ventures to the debauched big city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa for an insurance convention. Yet the cast, anchored by sweetly goofy Ed Helms, redeems the film at every turn, adding humor and dimension to characters who might have otherwise drowned in tacky grotesquerie.
Though Helms isn’t entirely a babe in the woods—he’s having a fling with an older schoolteacher (Sigourney Weaver) that’s very Dustin Hoffman-Anne Bancroft in its student-mentor nature—he’s filled with anxiety as he represents BrownStar Insurance at a weekend-long convention in Cedar Rapids. He’s never been on a plane before, he doesn’t drink, and he personifies the high moral standards that have won the company its prized “Two Diamond” award year after year. His roommate (The Wire’s terrific Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) is another straight-shooter, but when they take on a third in John C. Reilly, a notorious boozer and skirt-chaser, Reilly’s corruptive influence quickly takes hold. Anne Heche adds a fourth to the group as an attractive, guileless convention vet who can match Reilly shot for shot.
Cedar Rapids returns Helms to a dynamic similar to The Hangover—four characters drinking heavily and getting into trouble—but it’s a little more soft-hearted beyond the hijinks. Helms’ innocence may be lost, but wisdom comes along to take its place; the film makes a strong argument for the therapeutic value of getting liquored up and having a good time. Reilly has rarely been funnier as a braying, loveably vulgar life-of-the-party type, and Heche emerges from the Hollywood wilderness with a wry, immensely appealing performance. Cedar Rapids winds itself down with deflating conventionality, but the morning after a really good time is always a little rough.