Ed Helms is an affable and charming fellow who appears to have the charisma and skill required to handle leading-man roles on the big screen. But that time is not now. At the moment Helms is in many ways a victim of his own success on NBC's "The Office," where he's been playing for the past six years the a cappella-loving, insecure nerd, Andy Bernard.
Until "The Office" goes off the air—and it appears there's at least a season or two to go—Helms is going to have a tough time escaping Bernard as he makes the leap to movies, especially if he keeps getting roles like the insecure belittled boyfriend in The Hangover and the insecure naïve insurance salesman Tim Lippe in Cedar Rapids.
But the eventual end of "The Office" is still no guarantee that Helms will ever be able to shed his small screen persona to any substantial degree. There's even a great example of the perils of former television brilliance within Cedar Rapids, as Isiah Whitlock Jr.—who played the wonderfully evil state senator Clay Davis in "The Wire"—is cast against type here as an honest, hardworking and friendly insurance agent. And although Whitlock does a fine-enough job as one of Lippe's cohorts, I could never shake the image of the smug, arrogant, corrupt guy I'd grown to love and hate, constantly punctuating his dialog with, "Sheeeeeeet."
Cedar Rapids is a decent enough comedy that mixes elements of slapstick and dark humor to varying levels of success as we follow Lippe and his newfound friends at an annual insurance industry conference in the eponymous Iowan city. But director Miguel Arteta fails to effectively convey a much heavier undercurrent of middle-class angst and frustration, one that occasionally floats to the surface but eventually just gets bogged down by the film's own sappiness. And it all ends up playing out like a moderately entertaining three-episode arch of—there's really no way to escape this—"The Office."
That's not a terrible thing, but Cedar Rapids had the potential to be as introspective and moving as last year's Up In The Air. Instead it follows a wonderful series of middle scenes in which we begin to see some depth to Lippe and his colleagues and then it flounders in sitcom territory in the movie's final act. It's as if the filmmakers took a hard look at some uncomfortable themes involving the escapism and alternate realities fostered by working life and business travel and decided not to dive headfirst into that pool.
So, instead, Cedar Rapids just tests those waters, aided by a wonderful cast that includes John C. Reilly, Anne Heche and Sigourney Weaver—a cast that probably would have been up to the challenge of exploring a side to Midwestern angst that is almost non-existent on screen today. And Helms is very good as Lippe, a sad-sack bachelor with some serious emotional neediness. He's sleeping with his recently divorced seventh grade teacher (Weaver), and explains their relationship to colleagues as "almost pre-engaged." Not only does the last-minute business trip to the Iowa conference provide Lippe's first airplane experience, but it might also very well be the first time he's left the state of Wisconsin.
In Cedar Rapids he meets colleagues to whom this conference is a yearly high point, a place to booze it up and stay in a nice hotel (with an indoor pool!) without having to worry about familial obligations. But no amount of karaoke and conference scavenger hunts can mask the fact that there are some very sad people in attendance. Some work too hard, others are in the midst of failing marriages, and in the middle of it all is Lippe. He's ostensibly in Cedar Rapids to lobby the association's president for a coveted two-diamond award, but is almost immediately overwhelmed by his environment. While his innocence has its cute and endearing moments, it also occasionally falls into unbelievable Forrest Gump territory, like when Lippe fails to grasp the obvious flirtations of a prostitute.
But it's still hard not to like the guy, or his often-obnoxious group of peers. Even as Cedar Rapids slowly devolves into predictable territory—fueled by a crisis of conscience as the conference reaches its endpoint—there are still wry and subversive moments to be enjoyed. Of note are the subtle jabs at Bible Belt hypocrisy throughout the film. Reilly is especially funny as he complains about his hangover during the breakfast prayer.
Helms has taken a giant leap in proving he can carry a pretty good film as the lead. But how high a ceiling he has may very well depend on how well he untangles himself from Andy Bernard when "The Office" finally closes its doors. Cedar Rapids does not represent much of a stretch.
Cedar Rapids continues at the Wilma Theatre.