Miguel Arteta's new comedy Cedar Rapids fits squarely into the bracket of Midwest comedies - that droll terrain previously mapped out in the films of Alexander Payne (a producer here) or, indeed, the U.S. version of The Office, on which its leading man Ed Helms served an apprenticeship. While no-one's idea of a major work, it's yet another demonstration of the rich repository of acting talent the New American Comedy has to select from: one of those films where just the introduction of characters played by familiar, underused and underrated performers can yield a warm, affectionate chuckle.
Helms - promoted to leading man status off the back of The Hangover - plays Tim Lippe, a fortysomething Wisconsin naif with a fondness for bumbags and sweater vests, carrying on a fling with his sometime high-school teacher (a typically withering bit for Sigourney Weaver). When one of his colleagues at the small-town insurance firm at which he works dies in an unexpected self-pleasuring episode, Lippe is dispatched to take the deceased's place at a weekend conference in the quiet Iowa berg of the title. Outwardly, the conference is a drab, lame affair, with entertainments based on reality TV shows and delegates assembling at a bar called Horizons at the end of the day, but Tim finds himself caught in the middle of a power struggle between insurance nabob Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith) and his own, unfailingly repulsive roommate Dean "Deanzie" Ziegler (John C. Reilly).
The comedy is founded on a lie, or at least an exaggeration: it's simply unfeasible that anyone should have reached 40 and held down a responsible job with as little knowledge of the outside world as Tim Lippe demonstrates. Still, go along with it, and Cedar Rapids makes for a cute liberation fable, at all points shying away from the sneering of which the smarter-than-thou Payne is occasionally guilty. It's not easy to nail this kind of workplace cameraderie: the film won me over around the time Ziegler elected to crash a lesbian wedding in the same hotel, what could easily have given cause for crass lo-jinks becoming instead a valuable team-bonding exercise, as well as an excuse for a bloody good knees-up. After that, the scene in which Reilly offers Helms a lecture in self-actualisation while clad in nothing more than his boxers (and sipping a Bloody Mary from a plastic cup) is all bonus.
To mitigate against the maleness of this universe, Arteta casts carefully in the supporting parts. Anne Heche is somehow both of this world and floating blithely above it as Lippe's fellow delegate (and eventual seducer) Joan "J-Fox" Ostrowski, a woman who believes that what happens in Cedar Rapids should stay in Cedar Rapids, and refuses to apologise for her more forthright behaviour; most welcome of all, there's a bumped-up role for Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat as the hooker Lippe accidentally comes to do crack with - again, Phil Johnston's remains pleasingly non-judgemental on the matter. A little inconclusive, too, mind: the film limps towards a nothingy ending - Tim standing up against his corrupt bosses at an awards ceremony - and knows it, stocking the end credits with skits as a reward for having made it this far. Yet if there's nothing quite as sharp in the writing as The Office manages on a weekly basis, it's funny and well-played: in the present dead zone for new releases, the kind of smaller-scale offering worth taking a punt on.
Cedar Rapids is on nationwide release.