Roger Lemke is the conquering hero of Brown River, Wis. On the eve of his big TV debut — in a commercial for the small-town insurance company he has led to a coveted two-diamond rating four years running — he revels in the adulation of his peers. To them, he’s a celebrity, a master salesman and, most important, a family man.
When Roger (Thomas Lennon) turns up dead — a casualty of his sexual excesses — we learn all we need to know about “Cedar Rapids,” the terrific new comedy from “Youth in Revolt” director Miguel Arteta.
Middle America might seem like the last bastion of old-fashioned values, where all it takes to get ahead is a little know-how and a lot of elbow grease, but appearances deceive.
That comes as a surprise to Tim Lippe, Roger’s worshipful colleague suddenly thrust into a starring role at the annual insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Tim (Ed Helms) is the genuine article, an overgrown child living out his boyhood dream of sleeping with his grade-school teacher (Sigourney Weaver) and content with his place in Roger’s shadow. He has never been on a plane or stayed in a hotel, where he is shocked to learn he’ll be sharing a suite with “an Afro-American.”
Tim harbors vague aspirations to be a husband and father, but what’s most remarkable about him is how oblivious he is to life’s insistent realities. He is far too innocent to grasp the concept of a casual fling, much less understand that not all insurance salesmen are in the game to look out for their customers.
“Rapids” tells the hilarious story of his crash-course initiation into a world of backroom deals and soul-crushing compromises. If Tim at first seems too much of a rube to be anything more than a screenwriter’s mean-spirited parody, it is his unflagging idealism that makes his rite of passage endearing.
Leading him drunkenly through the wreckage of the American Dream is Dean (John C. Reilly), a loud, proudly profane salesman who rails against his colleagues’ hypocrisy; Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr., of HBO’s “The Wire”); and Joan (Anne Heche), who gently prepares Tim for the messiness of adult relationships.
Starring Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Stephen Root
Written by Phil Johnston
Directed by Miguel Arteta
Running time 1 hour, 26 minutes