In 2009, Phil Johnson's then-unproduced script, Cedar Rapids, ranked in at number five on the Black List (blcklst.com), a survey of the most popular unproduced screenplays in Hollywood according to production company and film studio executives. As the Black List has afforded "second chances" to such initially passed-over scripts as the 2008 Oscar winner for Best Original Screenplay Juno and, nominee of the same year, Lars and the Real Girl, it is generally held to be somewhat influential within the industry. Still, it is surprising to learn that Cedar Rapids almost never saw the light of day as it is a small-scale comic masterpiece, shockingly funny but also riddled with pathos, featuring a host of brilliant comedic performances—especially from John C. Reilly and Ed Helms—as well as a bald faced "morality play" that would make Frank Capra swell with pride and a sweetly dopey Vince Guaraldi-esque soundtrack to boot.
When the most popular and respected representative of small Wisconsin insurance agency called Brown Valley dies as a result of autoerotic asphyxiation, his coworker, guileless clean-cut boob Tim Lippe (Helms), is sent by his employer to the annual conference of an insurance trade association, the ASMI—probably a stand-in for the NAMIC—in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His purpose: to curry influence with the organization's pious Christian president, Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith), and secure for Brown Valley the prestigious and lucrative "Two Diamond Award." But Tim's faith in the moral integrity of his trade is shaken when he learns that the prime mover of its intra-industry politics may be greed, and not the honorable pursuit of compensatory justice that impelled him to join it in the first place. What's worse: he has also just learned that his middle-aged divorcée girlfriend, who was also his fifth grade teacher, Macy (Sigourney Weaver) is far more interested in playing the field than settling down again, and this aggregation of heartbreak sends Tim on a downward spiral of abject misery, philandery and crystal meth abuse.
The violent descent of Tim would seem a bit silly and over-the-top if he were not such a meticulously crafted character: Johnson treats Helms' naiveté less an excuse for a host of absurd "wouldn't it be funny if…" moments, but as a kind of instability, a tenuousness of character explaining his utter inability to cope with the harsh realities unloaded upon him in the second act. For example, when Tim first meets Bree (Alia Shawkat), whom he offers a piece of candy, he fails to conclude, despite copious evidence, that she is a prostitute working the yearly convention, and this is not because he's a comical idiot, but because he cannot conceive of such an unhappy reality. Similarly, the decision to involve Tim in a paramour with the maternal figure of Macy is less "kinky and random" than a natural expression of that childlike innocence: note that her "break up" speech intentionally, and to great bathetic and comedic effect, resembles the words of encouragement that a junior high school teacher might impart to a favorite student, suggesting that Tim may not have developed much further than this point. And though she implicitly turns down his promise ring, the rebuff does not register in his mind, as he claims to be pre-engaged to her throughout the film. And it's only natural that the credulous Tim would be drawn into Bree's self-destructive world as she is simply a nice girl.
Shortly after their meeting, Tim learns that, owing to budget cuts, attendees of the convention have been forced to share their suites with roommates, so Tim makes the acquaintance of brash, revolting, prankster and occasional public masturbator Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), lonely workaholic Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and man's-woman Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), the lattermost presenting an equally vexing obstacle to Tim when, despite having a husband and two children, she seduces him and reveals that her tendency towards serial adultery is less a result of dissatisfaction with her station than mere ennui. While his role finds Reilly reprising any number of creepy characters he's portrayed in inferior comedies, Ziegler's “good-time party-guy”-wackiness seems to emanate from inner pain: a failed marriage and pregnant teenage daughter; after all, when confronted with the news that Tim has surpassed him in debauchery by winding up at a drug-addled greaser party, Dean is forced to uncomfortably affect being "that hip."
The humor of Cedar Rapids, though at times cheap and scatological, is a bit sharper than might be expected: largely character-driven and, best of all, derived from the genuine camaraderie established among the unlikely group of chums. And the film's set design is decidedly grim and cheap; the hotel in which most the action is based, decidedly three-star; Brown Valley, a slightly decrepit, sleepy burg, riddled in dull seventies earth tones.
But the true strong suit of the film is its surfeit of memorable comedic performances, the unquestionable best of which must be that of Helms, for whom Tim Lippe may be the role of a lifetime. Though his true "role of a lifetime" is the one from which he will probably be forever typecast—The Office's "blueblooded idiot," Andy Bernard—Helms' enormous vacant eyes and perpetually forlorn-seeming frog-face seem to have been crafted to convey slightly more complicated designs. Testifying to this is his handling of an early scene in which Tim must begrudgingly hand over a credit card to the hotel's concierge for incidental expenses, which he infuses with a sense of genuine "not even really that funny" distress, the result of which is an extremely uncomfortable scene; he even manages to make Tim's absurd precoital exclamation of "I want to make love!" ring true: less an awkward, oddball jabber than an exultant revelation of fact; and this is also a role which calls for the actor to bawl hysterically in a half-naked state and "play" high on crystal meth. Also above reproach are Heche, Reilly and Stephen Root as Tim's slimy boss.
To state the obvious, this is a film that will undoubtedly be ignored, probably for its vague, unintentional—as we know, given the age of its script—similarity to the 2009 prestige "Indie for idiots" Up in the Air, which was really little more than an excuse for Hollywood to pat itself on the back for producing a Clooney Oscar-push that facilely touched upon a pertinent social issue, but this would be unfortuante because Cedar Rapids is the kind of film that most people would fall in love with if they weren't being viciously ordered to hate it and, to make matters worse, it's a February release. But, for the sake of argument, a film set in a parallel reality in which insurance companies have become overrun by greedy religious fundamentalists, and in which a man who exhibits devout "faith" only in the rigor of his profession resorts to smoking crystal meth and telling a prostitute that he loves her after that faith is challenged by the disclosure of some mild venality on the part of one whom Ziegler refers to as "the pope of insurance”—a film like that might be a bit more socially relevant than one about how getting fired kind of sucks because people are sad about it and they cry.