“Cedar Rapids” feels like a hybrid of an Alexander Payne and a Jason Reitman movie that shares both of those creators’ sensibilities without either of their esteemed quality. It’s not so much quirky as in need of quirks, a group of sorta-losers who are definitely likable but not entirely lovable. While we get enjoyment through watching Ed Helms’ tragically inexperienced Tim Lippe finally take flight into the skies of adulthood, we can’t help but wonder if his journey was all that interesting.
Basically Lippe is an insurance agent who actually buys into the bells and whistles of what others would consider a necessary but passionless job. He’s never stepped foot out of the country, let alone his home state. After the sudden, auto-asphyxiated death of a more macho agent, Lippe is chosen to appear in his stead at a regional conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. To Tim, this is the big shot to show the insurance world what he’s all about. And if he’s able to win the conference’s 2-diamond award, he’ll be nothing less than a savior at his home agency.
At the conference, Lippe befriends king-of-dad-jokes Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), buster of chops and laugher at anything with a 69 in it Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), and easy to talk to who still parties hard Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche). These characters feel undeveloped but also strangely akin to the names and faces you’d actually encounter at some B-level conference at a two-star, flyoyer state hotel. They push Tim to evolve, to stand with his shoulders more tall and his legs more relaxed, to lick the salt, take the shot, and not be afraid of any of life’s nasty-tasting after burn. Tim’s blooming confidence puts him at odds with Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith), the fatherly but judgmental insurance head honcho, leaving Tim in a hellish state of self-actualization and perpetual shame.
We get joy from “Cedar Rapids” because it’s a coming of age story for a middle-aged-man. The setting is quaint and the stakes are small, allowing us to become engrossed by these achingly normal figures and their relatively unimportant problems. Even their conversations are a step below the more clever and verbose sentences big city folk are probably spewing in one or two towns over. But “Cedar Rapids” poignantly reflects that idea of finding meaning and purpose in the mundane, that life can be full of color, even if its only the brown and orange of midwest hotel lobbies.