Upon arriving in Cedar Rapids, Lippe, already awed by the flight and the free peanuts, continues his rendezvous with destiny in the swanky confines of the Royal Cedar Inn. Krogstad booked Lippe a room with a fellow personality type in Ron Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr), but Wilkes’ milquetoast demeanor is in sharp relief to his regular conference buddies Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) and Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche). The former’s a raunchy rebel who flaunts the uptight Christian values of conference organizer Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith) while the latter treats the conference as her annual getaway from a quotidian suburban lifestyle. The trio induct the reluctant Lippe into their group, an association that puts him at odds with Helgesson and Krogstad.
The aforementioned praise for Helms can be shared for much of the rest of the cast. Reilly, in the middle of a banner year in 2011, is a riotous devil-on-the-shoulder, prodding Lippe towards drink and women not out of sheer hedonism but a rejection of Helgesson’s stiff repression, like his presence as an industry leader is an affront to everything Ziegler stands for. Heche’s Ostrowski-Fox is a game participant, exactly the right level of boisterous for a person who’s going to click back to normalcy in a few days. Screenwriter Phil Johnston handles Whitlock’s Wilkes perfectly, framing him as a version of Lippe with a slightly broader worldview and also providing a calibrated meta nod to Wilkes being a big fan of The Wire, a series that Whitlock memorably played a big part in. On the antagonist side, Root invests Krogstad with the same sweaty corruption that he’d later bring to his role in Barry, and Smith is a shade less villainous than his role in Robocop.
While the film does have characters worthy of being rooted against, its morality is still more nuanced than hypocrisy = bad and earnestness = good. Ziegler knows exactly who he is, and though he’s not hiding anything from anyone, all this self-knowledge hasn’t prevented him from having problems at home. Similarly, a hotel sex worker (Alia Shawkat) seems perfectly comfortable in her skin, making no bones about who she is and what she’s about at the hotel entrance. More complicated is Ostrowski-Fox, a married woman not averse to cultivating affairs through the conference. One gets the impression that this only exists in this space, wherein she needs this thing that’s purely for herself so she can go and give what’s left to her family. We never see her back home, so it’s unclear whether the real Ostrowski-Fox exists there or in Cedar Rapids, but the real Krogstad and Helgesson are revealed in back rooms and shady negotiations. They rank on the bottom of the film’s moral hierarchy because they’re never the thing they present themselves to be i.e. an upright businessman who cares about their employees and a revered figurehead bestowing recognition upon the worthy.
The person who is always, irrevocably, himself is Lippe, a man who wears his childlike heart on his sleeve for the vultures of Cedar Rapids to peck at. He’s the big-hearted center of a film with a big-enough heart to frame insurance as a noble pursuit, embodied by Lippe’s mission statement about why he does what he does. Lippe’s honesty is refreshing and never cloying, whether he’s foolishly proposing marriage to Ms. Vanderhei or learning that the first hit of crack is, in fact, awesome. Arteta put together a crack team for a satisfying film, and, like his lovable lead character, finds ample dignity in the mundane. B+