Ed Lippe (Ed Helms), the main character, an idealistic and naive insurance salesman in small-town Wisconsin, goes to the big city, Cedar Rapids, for a regional conference in hopes of securing for the third year in a row the Three Diamonds Award for his company. The man who was originally supposed to attend the convention died suddenly in an auto-erotic asphyxiation accident!
Although his boss has warned him to stay away from one particular attendee, Dean Zeigler (John C. Reilly), Ed naturally ends up rooming with “Deansie” and Ronald Wilkes (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.), an African-American man whose skin color initially shocks the sheltered Ed. The three men also hook up with a female insurance agent (Anne Heche).
I’ve seen this story lots of times before. Why does this version work so well?
First of all, the entire cast seems to be having fun, especially Anne Heche, who, whenever she's on TV or in the movies, acts like she wants to be somewhere else. Ed Helms is the perfect straight man-child. Even after his illusions about the award he covets are shattered, he manages to extricate himself in a way that reinforces his essential goodness and innocence.
Ed believes that, in the past, Dean has poached clients from his boss. But when Dean, who easily confesses to drinking, smoking, and eating too much and to pinching too many women’s behinds, swears he would never steal a client, Ed takes him at his word. Why? Because he’s already admitted to his failings. He has no reason to lie. His fundamental decency fits not only the person we’ve come to know but also the situation he’s in.
Not so here. Dean helps Ed but never once stops spewing four-letter words or being totally outrageous—including one of the very last scenes while the credits are rolling when he manages a feat I’d read about in my college newspaper but never really thought was possible.
I’m not going to tell you what it is. See the movie for yourself and find out, while spending an hour and a half with characters who are hilarious, flawed, and utterly real, thanks to joyful acting and even better writing.