About ten years ago, Miguel Arteta had one hell of a dark streak. His early films “Chuck & Buck” and “The Good Girl” are amongst the most demented, pitch black comedies to ever emerge from the indie scene. They were centered around disturbed misfits trying to achieve happiness through squirm-tastic means (homoerotic stalking and a sexual affair with a suicidal teenager, respectively), and they just might have influenced the awkward comedy style later popularized by shows like “The Office,” for which Arteta directed one episode.
Since then, he’s lightened up considerably, working only on some stray TV episodes, the Michael Cera vehicle “Youth in Revolt” and now the new comedy, “Cedar Rapids.” But Artera’s knack for perceptive characterization actually pays off in this minor, delightful effort: “Cedar Rapids” is a light, casually enjoyable film, but in subtle ways, it’s much less typical than it easily could’ve been.
The set-up is sitcom-ish enough: Ed Helms plays Tim, a hopelessly straight-laced insurance salesman in Wisconsin. His greatest accomplishment in life seems to be an affair with his middle-school teacher — at work, he’s perpetually in the shadow of his company’s award-winning, commercial-nabbing star employee. Tim seems content to settle for a tiny existence on the sidelines, and he’d probably do just that — if the aforementioned star employee didn’t suddenly die during autoerotic asphyxiation. That leaves Tim to now represent his company at an annual insurance convention, and he leaves Wisconsin for the first time to visit the bustling metropolis that is Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Simply staying in a nice hotel (with a pool!) is almost too much for Tim to handle. So he’s especially mystified by the small group of agents he befriends, including Dean (John C. Reilly), who’s like a middle-aged frat bro working in insurance and Joan (Anne Heche), a family woman who regards the annual conference as an exciting escape from middle-class monotony.
There’s also Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a friendly, self-made success, but he serves as the voice of reason. Dean and Joan, meanwhile, are the ones tempting Tim out of his comfort zone. By the end of the film, that will consist of Tim doing drugs for the first time, hooking up with a prostitute and getting involved in a bribing scheme — not your average insurance convention, for sure.
What helps vitalize Tim’s fish-out-of-water misadventures is that no one in the film is a “type,” at least not condescendingly so. Imagine how easy it would be for a lesser film to take Tim’s naïveté, Joan’s flirtatiousness and Dean’s immaturity and not develop those traits at all, just playing them for cheap laughs all the way through. But the characters in “Cedar Rapids” feel completely natural. It helps that the cast includes Helms and Reilly, two of today’s funniest character actors. Beyond that, the characters’ obvious narrative roles are anchored and deepened by an undercurrent of genuine kindness. This movie is so easy-going that it doesn’t even include any inevitable humor about its humdrum midwest setting, which would seem like the easiest target.
There are some other targets that “Cedar Rapids” overlooks, but to its detriment. At 87 minutes, the film is a little too breezy for its own good.
There are two early subplots — Tim’s affair with his teacher, and the bizarre death of his beloved co-worker — that seem like very particular set-ups for hilarity, but instead are just oddly brushed aside.
Likewise, there are entire sequences throughout the film — like Tim reluctantly performing in the hotel’s talent show, or the insurance agents participating in a city-wide scavenger hunt — that seem to be going somewhere, only to fizzle without anything particularly funny.
If “Cedar Rapids” really pushed beyond easy likeability, it would have been outright hilarious, rather than thoroughly whimsical.
But hey, what the hell — either way, the result is a sweet, joyful comedy. Like its protagonist, “Cedar Rapids” never gets too caught up in anything crude and reprehensible — at its heart, this is a very good-natured human comedy. That’s why the film, despite its modest amusement value, surprisingly sticks with you longer than expected.
Silverstein is a member of the class of 2013.