BY NANCY R. MANDELL
If you're not too overwhelmed by the drama of Academy Awards season, you might take time out for a gentle, underwhelming comedy directed by Miguel Arteta ("Chuck and Buck," "The Good Girl"), called "Cedar Rapids" that won fans and distribution at the Sundance Film Festival. Short on morals, but long on morality, "Cedar Rapids" is a coming-of-age story whose hero is a rather improbable 34-year-old insurance salesman. Mind you, this is no 40-year-old virgin. Tim Lippe — played by Ed Helms whose name is probably the one you never knew from the cast of "The Hangover" — is having a pretty torrid, once-a-week affair with his former seventh-grade teacher, the recently divorced Macy Vanderhei, played at perfect pitch by Sigourney Weaver. Anyway, Tim thinks the affair is torrid (and even considers himself pre-engaged); Macy — not so much!
Meanwhile, back at the Brown Valley, Wisc. office of the ASMI Insurance Co. where native son Tim has been contentedly treading water for half of his life, the agency's star salesman — the guy who brings home the coveted Two Diamonds Award every year — has met an untimely demise in an autoerotic home accident. (As an insurance agent, he probably should have realized that most accidents happen in the home!) And — ready or not — Tim's boss and mentor has decided it's time for Tim to carry the ball at the annual company convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Having never left Brown Valley, it's with great trepidation that Tim prepares for his first airline experience and the temptations of a "big City" convention.
Tim encounters lots of cute shtick en route, but it's not until he checks in at the Cedar Rapids hotel that his small-town naiveté is challenged for real — first by, Bree (Alia Shawkat) the local prostitute he mistakes for a greeting committee, and subsequently by the two far more experienced colleagues who are his roommates and a kookily aggressive party-girl agent played with comic gusto — and later with some charming sensitivity — by a red-haired Anne Heche.
As for those roommates — clearly this is not a convention of big spenders — Isiah Whitlock Jr. as the somber Ronald Wilkes (aka the "Ronimal") and John C. Reilly as the vulgar loudmouth Dean Ziegler (Deanzie to you), appear to have enormous fun initiating Tim into the rituals of convention life, most of which our innocent hero immediately reports via cell phone to the bemused woman he left behind. Not until Heche, as Joanie Ostrowski-Fox, gets him into bed ("I'm a philanderer!" he berates himself), do Tim's troubles begin in earnest. His indiscretion is discovered by Orin Helgerson (Kurtwood Smith), the very conservative executive who hands out the Two Diamonds awards, and is then reported to his boss back home.
But fear not. Tim's guileless good nature will not only triumph over adversity, but also expose some very bad behavior on Helgerson's part and vindicate his own innate integrity. In the course of his adventures — which include a druggy off-campus house party with Bree — Tim will bring out the best in all of his newfound friends and save the day for the agency back home.
While I'm usually put off by comedies whose protagonists are jerks, nerds or — more recently — schmucks, I have to concede that Helms — who has a touch of Jimmy Stewart in him — makes Tim a very likeable example. His naiveté is so completely honest and unaffected, that it's hard not to be won over. Arteta's assured direction manages to retain the character's dignity even through the film's silliest sequences.
It probably comes as no surprise that you won't have the time of your life at "Cedar Rapids," but given the right frame of mind and the patience to wait for the adorable epilogue that runs under the final credits, a pretty good time can be had by all.
"Cedar Rapids" opened at two New York City theaters last week and will go into wider release soon.