Forget Tarantino and the Coen Brothers - the new inspiration for independent directors these days is coming from classic Hollywood directors. Even the Coens, in True Grit, take their cue from John Ford, and indie icon David Fincher taps into the screwball style of Howard Hawks and Frank Capra with The Social Network. In his fourth film, aspiring maverick director Miguel Arteta (Chuck & Buck; Youth in Revolt) follows Capra deeper into the cornfield with this slyly complex and broadly comic farce about innocence, corruption, and the gray areas between.
Ed Helms has the Jimmy Stewart role as Tim Lippe, an eager former up-and-comer who never made it any farther than a sales job at BrownStar Insurance, the biggest business in his home town of Brown Valley, Wisconsin. As his overbearing boss, Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root), puts it, "When you were 16, I thought this was a kid who was going to go places, and then somehow . . . he just didn't." Tim's romantic potential froze up at an even earlier age: he's now having an affair with his former seventh-grade teacher, Miss Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver). He thinks he's "pre-engaged"; she's just looking for a good time. But what's most amazing is how he idealizes insurance as a profession helping people and not a scam exploiting human misery.
So when Tim is sent to the big convention in Cedar Rapids to replace the company's hot-shot sales star (who died "accidentally" of auto-asphyxiation), you're braced for a round of broad babe-in-the-woods belly laughs. And so it goes, for a while. Having never left town in all of his 34 years, Tim is blown away by his first flight in an airplane, and by a hotel with palm trees in the lobby. Straight-arrow colleague Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) tries to show him the ropes, but he can't compete with bad apple Dean "Deanzie" Ziegler (John C. Reilly in another terrific comic performance), who initiates Tim into his version of conventional morality. Before you can say Hangover 2, Tim has shaken off his scruples and much of his clothing and is drinking champagne after hours in the pool with fellow conventioneer Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche).
The funny thing, though, is that Cedar Rapids doesn't settle for the obvious punch lines. There's a subtle subversion going on. Tim's goal is to win his company another "Double Diamond" for wholesomeness, and to do so, he must shed his innocence and acquire some wisdom - and not the platitudinous Hollywood kind. It may be corny, but it's not canned. Neither does the movie succumb to the Middle American despair of About Schmidt, which could have been the tale of Tim years down the road had he never seen the light of Cedar Rapids. (Schmidt director Alexander Payne is one of this film's producers.)
Instead, Cedar Rapids respects the ambiguity of good and evil without submitting to it. Maybe a married woman shouldn't indulge in recreational adultery while on a business trip, but that doesn't make her a bad person. Unlike Jason Reitman in his treatment of a similarly philandering professional/housewife in Up in the Air, Arteta and screenwriter Phil Johnston don't feel the need to justify Joan's party-girl behavior with disingenuous moralism. Neither does having fun make her a bad influence: when things go wrong, she teams up with Ronald and Deanzie to help Tim make the most of a dicy situation. Despite the hypocrisy and venality in Brown Valley, there's a lot there worth protecting - and Tim Lippe's job is ensuring its survival.