There’s no denying the similarities between Ed Helms’ characters in “Cedar Rapids” and “The Hangover.” Both films find Helms playing an uptight square swallowed by the bright lights of the big city, where he gets charmed by a prostitute, reaches heretofore unknown levels of inebriation and suffers a pretty serious beating. Still, it’s a credit to Helms and director Miguel Arteta that the film doesn’t feel like “The Hangover 1.5.”
Helms plays Tim Lippe, a straight shooting insurance rep from Wisconsin who gets sent to a conference in Cedar Rapids to represent his company in what amounts to the Super Bowl for Midwestern insurers. Tim's boss, Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root) sends him with explicit instructions to avoid Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) and stick close to Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). Naturally, Lippe ends up sharing a room with both of them.
Zeigler is a man so vulgar in his tastes, words and actions as to render the word meaningless. Reilly puts on an 86-minute clinic being as offensive as humanly possible, it’s a magnificent performance littered with a litany of cringe-inducing one-liners unfit for a family website. The joke he tells during the credits is enough all by itself to warrant the film’s R rating.
Anne Heche is a pleasant surprise as the “O-Fox,” a woman ground down by the rigors of family life who treats the annual convection as her personal Vegas—“What happens in Cedar Rapids…” That you even notice Heche working alongside Helms and Reilly in full-on over-the-top mode is a testament to her presence.
Arteta has a long history of taking audiences to the edge of their comfort zone and then giving them a light hip-check, and he does it again here. Here he crafts a pretty simple, straightforward story of redemption and make it feel like a carnival funhouse of mirrors where none of the archetypes quite conform to your expectations.
For all its disgusting jokes, sex, meth-smoking and “teat” squeezing, “Cedar Rapids” manages ultimately to be a sweet story about the value friendship and honesty. But because the message is packaged within in such an unapologetic bacchanal—it’s like the inverse of a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
"Cedar Rapids" goes into limited release on Friday, Feb. 11. You can read our coverage of the film at Sundace here.