American comedy’s bizarre obsession with the man-child continues in Cedar Rapids. In the latest iteration, The Office’s Ed Helms plays Tim Lippe, a terminally naive small-town insurance salesman who’s sent to attend a conference in the titular “big city” after the scheduled speaker dies of autoerotic asphyxia. (That’s the kind of detail this movie considers to be inherently hilarious; no actual jokes about it are even attempted.) Bunking in a hotel room with an avuncular dweeb (Isiah Whitlock Jr., playing against type) and a brash loudmouth (John C. Reilly, coasting on shtick), Tim gamely makes an effort to loosen up, especially after a pretty female colleague (Anne Heche) begins shamelessly flirting with him. But he still has values, dagnabbit, and the pervasive corruption and sin of Cedar Rapids gradually put his integrity to the test.
There’s a germ of a clever idea here, in the scaling down required to get Iowa’s second largest city to represent Vice. Trouble is, the film infantilizes Tim to the point where he sometimes seems to be from another planet, or perhaps time-traveling from earlier in the century. Is there anybody in America so sheltered that they’d jump with alarm upon seeing a friendly, rotund middle-aged black man? (“It’s an Afro-American,” Tim whispers into his phone.) Or who’d fail to comprehend that the young woman (Alia Shawkat) standing around the hotel entrance and asking random guys if they want to party is a hooker? Tim doesn’t need to embrace alcohol and dick jokes; he needs to quit wearing diapers. Some things are just too pathetic to be funny.