Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) has never flown on an airplane, or stayed in a hotel, or had a drink at a bar, or really done much of anything (except his sixth grade teacher). You’ll find a lot of Tim Lippes, if you’ve ever spent any amount of time in small town America. It takes a certain kind of person to willingly spend their entire life in a place where all your daily activities revolve mostly around the local Wal-Mart. It takes a certain kind of person to stay in that one small town, even when everyone else has run off to chase bigger dreams. It takes the kind of person who’s born content with what they have, the kind of person who’s never been tempted by the bright lights of the city, by its streets of never ending, trendy coffee shops. We can’t all live on Broadway and Tim Lippe is one of those contended millions who never wants to. The great thing about Cedar Rapids is that the part of him which doesn’t mind staying home and not only being happy with that, but finding nobility in it, isn’t going to change, even as a single weekend spent in the big world of schmoozing with fellow insurance agents lights a fire inside him.
He’d never seek out new experiences on his own, Tim gravitates toward the familiar, but he finds them thrust upon him when his boss (Stephen Root) orders him to the annual AMSI convention to defend their insurance agency’s two diamonds. The two diamonds are the ultimate sign of excellence in the insurance game and Tim’s predecessor, a sort of AMSI convention god, managed to win them for BrownStar Insurance two years in a row. Tim boards his first airplane at the region’s tiny commuter airport, instructed to stay away from client poachers and stick with the straight shooters, but from the moment he lands in Cedar Rapids nothing goes as planned.
Three convention veterans take him under their wing. Ronald (played brilliantly by Isiah Whitlock Jr.), is the straight-shooter his boss hoped he’d fall in with, but Dean (John C. Reilly in another hilarious performance) is the AMSI wild man; a boozy, hard-living blowhard with a healthy disdain for all the god stuff being forced upon his fellow conventioneers. Joan (Anne Heche delivering her best work, maybe ever) is everything Tim isn’t, a small town girl who doesn’t really want to be, and uses the annual AMSI conventions as her only escape from the real world of being who she actually is. They’ll introduce Tim to new experiences, maybe even save him from a few, but they won’t fundamentally change who he is, only help make who he is even better.
The dynamic bond between the little group that forms around Tim carries the film. Tim, unaccustomed to a world full of moral ambiguity, needs them to help point him down the right road as he finds himself questioning the things he’s believed in. The chemistry between Helms, Reilly, Whitlock, and Heche creates something special in the otherwise mundane world of the insurance game.
Director Miguel Arteta frames his movie as a comedy, and at times it’s wildly funny. Yet in its best moments it also feels surprisingly real, a movie about normal people going about their lives in a place outside their routine. It’s the kind of movie almost no one ever really seems to make anymore, a film about people who aren’t artists or writers or wealthy raconteurs or big dreamers aspiring to bigger things, as nearly all the characters in Hollywood’s movies so often seem to be even though almost no one in the real world ever actually fits that mold. Cedar Rapids is shaggy and goofy and smart and quirky in all the best ways. You’ll walk out rooting for Tim who, though he leaves Cedar Rapids the same decent, contented man he was, has discovered that somewhere on the inside he’s made of stronger stuff.