The out-of-town conference: What happens there is supposed to stay there. But small-town insurance salesman Tim Lippe has hung his hopes on the weekend's American Society of Mutual Insurance conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His job and his self-respect depend on bringing home the prestigious "Two Diamond Award."
Relativity is a key part of the gentle mockery of "Cedar Rapids," a snappy new comedy written by Phil Johnston and directed by Miguel Arteta ("Youth in Revolt"). To Tim (and his high-pressuring boss), the coveted "Two Diamond Award" means everything; to us, it's an absurdly political marketing tool. To those of us near the biggest of cities, Cedar Rapids seems podunk; to Tim Lippe of Brown Valley, Wis., Cedar Rapids is like the land of Oz.
The Mayberry-esque Brown Valley has at least one secret: Tim (Ed Helms) is sleeping with his former seventh-grade teacher, Millie Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver). Their rendezvous define a relationship that's oddly sweet but more than a little awkward. When Brown Star Insurance's top salesman (a highly amusing Thomas Lennon) kicks the bucket, the job of representing the firm in Cedar Rapids falls to Tim, who has never even taken a plane ride.
Nervous but determined, Tim readies himself to prove he lives up to the "Two Diamond" standards of "community, country and God." Everything about Cedar Rapids wows him: his rental car (ooh!), his hotel lobby (aah!) and his unexpectedly black roommate Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr. of "The Wire"). And Tim gets saddled with a second roommate, the man he's been warned to avoid: Dean Ziegler (comic force of nature John C. Reilly). A binge drinker smarting from the breakup of his marriage, Ziegler is so degenerate that he considers "degenerate" a compliment.
Some at the ASMI conference are evangelists (like convention organizer Orin Helgesson, played by Kurtwood Smith), and some are realists (like Ronald). Others are world-weary cynics, like Ziegler, insurance saleswoman Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche) and local prostitute Bree (Alia Shawkat).
But just try to resist Tim's optimism, warmly embodied by quirk-meister Helms. Tim hands out butterscotch candy as an icebreaker, fer gosh sakes. Though she's married, Joan finds herself drawn to Tim's genuineness, which is more powerful by far than his naivete.
"Cedar Rapids" doesn't break any ground, but it pleasantly evokes "Fargo" and the oeuvre of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (who get producer credits here) in its detailed and consistently funny observation of small-town sincerity muddling through a dog-eat-dog world. Is it possible insurance companies have gotten a bad rap? Is it possible integrity still means something? Tim has to run a gauntlet of sex, drugs and karaoke to find out, but his trials are our laughs and smiles. For a good time, call on "Cedar Rapids."