Nerd down Ed Helms in The Hangover and you get Ed Helms in Cedar Rapids, a fish-out-of-water workplace comedy that wishes it were a raunchier Office Space but is more like a backward New in Town. (Don’t remember New in Town? Exactly.)
Helms plays Tim Lippe, a choir-boy insurance salesman from a town so small “if there’s a bad egg around, people find out pretty fast.” Unfortunately those words also apply to the movie: Tim is sent to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for a big conference that would normally be attended by the company’s top salesman, recently dead from erotic asphyxiation. Before Tim leaves, he gives his fuck buddy (Sigourney Weaver!) a promise ring, because he’s just that innocent. And once he gets there, he ends up rooming with the one guy his boss told him to stay away from: Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), an obnoxious motormouth who can’t speak a sentence without saying something vulgar.
So right away, director Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt) and freshman scripter Phil Johnston have rendered Helms and Reilly unfunny—something that’s fairly difficult to pull off. (Add Stephen Root and Rob Corddry, in a tiny late-chapter role, to the list, too.) The gist of the story is that the other conference attendees treat the experience as a chance to drink, screw around, and generally go wild on the company’s dime. Tim frowns on all that—literally—until a flirty woman (Anne Heche) gets him to loosen up. And now there’s a party!
But what about Tim’s big presentation? Well, sometime amid his wild-oats-sowing, Tim learns a dirty company secret that casts further pall on his predecessor’s demise. And now he has to decide whether to follow in the guy’s footsteps or do the right thing. The future of the company is at stake, too. You won’t care.
There are, to be fair, a few laughs during the film’s 86-minute running time. Weaver is funny as Tim’s patient (if eye-rolling) lover, and Isiah Whitlock Jr., as a conference attendee who’s only semi-nerdy, is amusing when he unveils a gangsta persona based on a character from his favorite show, The Wire. But Helms is more irritating than endearing, and it’s tiring watching Reilly try so hard to wring some kind of humor out of his terribly written but significant role. Heche’s character has a what-happens-in-Cedar-Rapids-stays-in-Cedar-Rapids attitude; Cedar Rapids itself should have stayed on a shelf.