It’s the quirks and surprises that make an offbeat movie like Cedar Rapids enjoyable.

The basic story is strictly conventional: Naive insurance agent Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is unexpectedly catapulted from his routine life in the Wisconsin hinterlands to the bright lights and high stakes hustle of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. That’s where the annual ASMI convention is held, and Tim is forced to substitute at the last minute for his deceased colleague — star insurance agent Roger Lemke, winner of the Two Diamonds award for three consecutive years. Suddenly it’s up to Tim to bring home the fourth.

Tim Lippe is an incredibly unambitious and unworldly man, but he does nonetheless have sex regularly with his former grade-school teacher, Miss Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver), who realizes it’s well past time for Tim to grow up.

So off Tim jets to Cedar Rapids and its multi-story Royal Cedar Suites hotel. There, he’ll have to navigate his way between cocktails, a hotel prostitute, and corporate politics — plus fellow agents like convention party animal Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), straight-laced Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock, Jr. from The Wire), and the vivacious Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), uncaged only these few days every year.

The first half of the movie, in which Tim gradually gets himself in way over his head, is somewhat lacking. I always like John C. Reilly, but he doesn’t get to come across much initially. Still, it is astounding how far into uncharted waters Tim Lippe soon drifts. What really redeems Cedar Rapids is its second half, in which Tim has to find a way out of his mess.

The starring role here is not very far removed from the Andy Bernard character Ed Helms plays on The Office. Helms is still developing as a comedic actor, but what’s special about him is the sense of sincerity and even a hint of poignancy beneath his inept, self-conscious schtick. His depth makes him more interesting as a lead, as opposed to his supporting roles in the Hangover films.

For a fairly small picture, Cedar Rapids‘ cast is surprisingly strong. Anne Heche, in particular, does a fine job, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. turns out to be quite funny.

Director Miguel Arteta has not broken any ground here, but the script has some amusing moments and the movie eventually rallies enough to make for a diverting hour and a half. I rate it three stars out of four.

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