A noisier but arguably less idiosyncratic experience than attending an actual Midwestern business convention, Cedar Rapids is the nominal story of Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), a contortedly straight-arrow insurance agent even by small-town Wisconsin standards, save for the affair he's conducting with a bemused older woman (Sigourney Weaver) who happens to be his former seventh-grade teacher. (Coaxing her for early memories of him, Tim receives the snappish answer, "You were 12.") Dispatched by his brusque boss to the titular Iowa city for an annual industry gathering, Helms's guileless dweeb in baggy sweaters, buttoned-up polo shirts, and a money belt seems like a doofy, contrived cousin to The 40-Year-Old Virgin—a naïf who goes wide-eyed at rental cars and chain hotels, and is oblivious to the come-on of a prostitute despite his carnal adventures with the hometown cougar. Phil Johnston's script sets up Tim as the butt of sheltered-hick humor, and Helms's polite shield of a grin doesn't dispel the burden of his neo-bowl haircut (the resemblance to Dylan Baker's disturbed dad in Todd Solondz's Happiness is striking).
Fortunately, once Tim arrives in Cedar Rapids the arch tone is disrupted, and the movie nearly saved, by John C. Reilly as "Deanzie" Ziegler, a steamroller of an ass-grabbing jokester who recklessly mocks the insurance circle's holy-roller president (Kurtwood Smith) while leading roommate Tim through a series of hotel bacchanals (fairly tepid by wild-man-comedy standards) and counseling him on how to "dance with the tiger" when the neophyte's quest to win an award for his firm appears sunk. It's not Reilly's caveman dialogue that makes him authentic ("That's a pube on your chin! Eating tuna from the bottom shelf?"), but his insistent brio, graceless swagger, and how his puttylike mug captures the glassiness of the shitfaced better than any actor working. Here, his supreme moment comes marching into a pool, clothed, hoisting a cocktail, and helmeted with a bulbous trashcan lid, while Tim enjoys wet foreplay with a coquettish, married insurance vet (Anne Heche). You may long for a reconceived scenario with Reilly as the conquering, mooning hero, but Helms's gullible-hearted innocent and his hard-knocks education take unfortunate precedence.
One wonders what the generally offbeat director Miguel Arteta saw in this job besides a healthy fraction of The Hangover's grosses (or why Fox's Searchlight imprint is on this broadly-aimed project) as the last act of Cedar Rapids settles into a formulaic personal-growth-and-victory pattern. There's a detour to a druggy backwoods party whose feeble gags include casting Rob Corddry as a tattooed thug, and Isiah Whitlock Jr., the Wire actor playing a straight-laced and likely closeted conventioneer, breaking out his Omar Little impression to intimidate the white trash. If Helms has the comedic chops to carry a movie, his WASPy Candide here isn't the vessel; and if the film's restoration of moral order in the goddamn insurance trade leaves a bad taste, at least there's a purgative Deanzie Ziegler cigarette-lighter trick for the end-credits epilogue.