"Cedar Rapids" begins very much like an Alexander Payne Midwestern comedy is expected to: with an afternoon sex romp and Sigourney Weaver exhorting her companion to "Bring it!"
Her caller is the woefully earnest Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) who when Weaver's character Macy — Tim's former 7th grade teacher — tells him that they're just "having a good time," he sincerely corrects her: "No, we're having the best time."
Tim is a 34-year-old Brown Star Insurance salesman in Brown Valley, Wis. He has somehow managed to get through life experiencing almost nothing. When the company's star salesman (Thomas Lennon) unexpectedly dies, boss Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root) sends Tim to the annual insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Though such a trip may not sound like the stuff of heart-stopping cinema, the trip proves a late coming-of-age for Tim, who befriends partying colleagues, experiments with drugs and has a moral crisis.
For Tim, Cedar Rapids might as well be Las Vegas, where Helms went in "The Hangover."
But "Cedar Rapids" is not an Alexander Payne ("Election," "About Schmidt") picture. He's the film's executive producer. It was directed by Miguel Arteta ("Youth in Revolt," "The Good Girl") and written by Phil Johnston.
"Cedar Rapids" lacks the darkness that Payne would have surely injected, and the film instead unfolds conventionally as a charming, belated coming-of-age comedy.
When Tim is dispatched to Cedar Rapids, he's charged with two objectives: Continue the company's winning streak of taking the prestigious Two Diamonds prize, and stay clear of Dean Ziegler. Of course, he quickly falls in with "Deanzie" (John C. Reilly), a brash, joke-spewing, recently divorced insurance veteran and hotel bar hero.
For Reilly, this is enormously fun. He's something like the living embodiment of the "Saturday Night Live" character Bill Brasky, a mythic, hard-drinking salesman. "Welcome to the jungle," he tells Tim.
The gifted Reilly is now almost principally a comedic actor — and with good reason. He's the most lovable of goof balls, with his eyes rolling around his sockets crazily and a voice that sounds drunk even when it's sober.
Tim is also befriended by two other veteran insurance salesmen: the nearly equally hedonistic Joan Ostrowski-Fox (the reliably excellent Anne Heche) and the button-down Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.).
They quickly realize that the sweater-clad, Sherry-drinking Tim is in need of some life exposure. The trio faithfully swarm around their protagonist, giving him an awakening amid wood paneled walls and drab hotel interiors.
Those cheery Midwesterners, it's suggested, are just as depraved as the rest of us.
"Cedar Rapids" is populated by so many actors chiefly recognized by their TV work, it's a kind of amalgamation of characters plucked from across the dial: "The Office" (Helms), "The Wire" (Whitlock) "The State" (Lennon), "That '70s Show" (Kurtwood Smith, as the insurance league president), "News Radio" (Root), "Arrested Development" (Alia Shawkat as a lurking prostitute) and "The Daily Show" (Rob Corddry, as a rough local).
Whitlock, who played a dirty politician with a catch phrase on "The Wire," adds further to the linkage to television by doing an impression of another character from the great HBO drama: the lone gunman Omar.
This is how meta we have gotten. Next James Gandolfini will be doing his best Silvio.
But it's an unspoken comparison that's impossible to avoid: Helms' "Office" co-star Steve Carell, whose "40-Year-Old Virgin" plumbed similar territory.
Helms exudes an innocence and sweetness similar to Carell, adding a touch of Ivy league nerdiness. As leading man in "Cedar Rapids," he holds the screen well, buoyed by the strong supporting cast. Utterly guileless, he marvels at banal things like a rental car ("Sweet!") and airline peanuts.
It's getting to be a familiar gag, but it's still hard to resist — especially when Reilly and Heche are in your corner.