IS IT JUST ME, or can you practically smell the comedic desperation coming off of Ed Helms? It's in those pained expressions—his lips pulled back in a primate's mollifying grimace and/or grin, his eyes anxiously gleaming for approval. It's a look that suggests he'd suffer any indignity placed before him in the name of a cheap laugh. In this inescapably post-Apatow age, Helms is one of a growing number of desperate, one-note comedians who, through some crazy brand of voodoo box-office economics, have proven themselves monetarily viable leading men. Helms certainly isn't the worst of this unlikely lot, but can his modest charms really be expected to carry a feature-length film, even if it's as unambitious as Cedar Rapids? Unfortunately for Helms, the poor guy never really stood a chance.
Directed by Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt, The Good Girl, Chuck & Buck), the critical consensus on Cedar Rapids seems to be something along the lines of "Frank Capra's 'aw-shucks' earnestness meets the 'edge' of Apatow"—and if that sounds like just about the most mind-numbingly vanilla bullshit you've ever heard of, you're probably giving it too much credit. Helms stars as a simple, small-town insurance salesman who's chosen on behalf of his troubled company to attend a weekend convention in the thriving titular metropolis, where he meets a trio of old-hand insurance agents (John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, that guy who played Clay Davis on The Wire) who "show him the ropes and push his boundaries." What sounds like an already tepid recipe for an absurdist satire of Middle American naïveté and white-collar minutiae is instead played remarkably straight, with Arteta's characteristically sympathetic treatment sapping his premise's already modest comedic potential. Somehow managing to out-milquetoast its title, and even its humble leading man, Cedar Rapids is the cinematic equivalent of a Midwestern airport layover—it's over within a couple of hours, and that's honestly all there is to say about it.