There is nothing big about Cedar Rapids. Small people and cities populate the movie, and small narratives and developments drive the story of Tim Lippe, played perfectly dorky by Ed Helms playing some form of Andy Bernard. Tim’s sheltered, optimistic psyche crumbles at an insurance conference taking place in the titular city when he encounters a ragtag crew led by the big-drinking, loud-talking Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly). Any fan of The Office knows how capable Ed Helms is of playing a man wrapped up in a narrow world, but in this film we get to see what happens when that world comes crashing down around him.
The movie thrives on a sort of minimalism, with a supremely talented cast reducing themselves to deeply flawed and extraordinarily ordinary individuals. The character issues presented to us seem relatable and pitiable, but to Helms’ Tim they are earth-shattering. First he leaves home for the first time, then his significantly mismatched other sets him free, and finally Dean and the crew bring him down from the idealizing perch on which he stood for much of his life. All of this is augmented by The Wire‘s Isiah Whitlock Jr. REFERENCING THE WIRE IN THE MOVIE. Very meta. Moreover, Tim’s heartwarming belated coming of age balances hilariously with some of the crudity found in the script. This crudity comes out mainly through John C. Reilly’s mouth.
Like all great underappreciated movies, this one has memorable scenes like the one found in the link above. I don’t know much about how things are done in Iowa, but I don’t think there’s too much sex in the pools at insurance conferences, and if there is, John C. Reilly usually isn’t there making R2D2 noises. Every moment has quirky darkness in the details, as in the moment we learn Tim’s predecessor died from auto-erotic asphyxiation. A passable movie could have been made simply out of Ed Helms’ dorky ignorance and John C. Reilly’s semi-troubling volatility, but Miguel Arteta made it fuller by actively pushing Tim Lippe towards the real world. Eventually, he has to face some real-world issues. He has to face the corruption of the awards conference and its leaders and the character flaws of his new friends, but that doesn’t mean he has to sacrifice his deeply entrenched optimism.
After learning that his company had bribed its way to previous awards, Tim even tries to pay his way to glory, sinking to the level of the filth around him. After making some bad decisions and finding himself surrounded by strangers and cocaine, Tim understands some of the complexities of the adult world but still rejects them. He comes out clean knowing that the best things in life are free (What? We had to acknowledge the incredible Mad Men finale somehow!), and reminding us that nice guys can finish first. The nuance of the movie, however, reminds us that nice guys have to grow up, too, and experience some of the ugliness of the world. They can overcome the pettiness of meaner individuals, but an awareness of such pettiness greatly increases the chances of transcending it to live a happy and morally fulfilling life. Sometimes it seems like the world doesn’t have enough Tim Lippes, but remember that just one can make a difference.