Lovable odd-ball Helms shines in 'Cedar Rapids'

F. SCOTT Fitzgerald's much-debated idea that there are no second acts in American lives is undeniably true of characters in contemporary Hollywood comedy.

Seriously, how much would you pay not to see a movie that surrounds its lead with a petrified entourage of potty-mouthed, underemployed, Falstaffian sidekicks?

Turns out you need only pay the going rate and amble over to "Cedar Rapids," a pleasant, oddball break from the tired formula.

The oddball-in-chief is Ed Helms, who stars here in what is essentially a coming-of-age movie about a guy, Tim Lippe, who's pushing 40.

And before you jump to conclusions, Tim's not a virgin. When we meet him, in fact, he's locked in carnal embrace with Sigourney Weaver (!), playing the former middle-school teacher with whom he's having a casual affair.

Casual to her, more meaningful to Tim, a very sheltered, earnest fellow who grew up on his own in a very small town where he now sells insurance at a family firm.

Tim was born on first base (he drew a walk), and is stranded there still, stymied by his timid nature and happy complacency, disrupted when an emergency makes him the firm's delegate to an important annual insurance convention in the terrifying metropolis of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

We brace ourselves for a zillion low-hanging jokes about Olive Garden restaurants, but "Cedar Rapids" mostly avoids them, and introduces us instead to a series of unpredictable characters, nicely sketched by a very good cast.

Tim is initially a little frightened of his African-American hotel roommate Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr. of "The Wire"), although he mellows when he learns Ronald is mainly into antiquing.

Tim is more troubled by hard-partying loudmouth Dean (John C. Reilly), and he's completely unnerved by Joan Ostrowki-Fox (Anne Heche), who has a predatory "what happens in Cedar Rapids stays in Cedar Rapids" mentality and makes a project of debauching the innocent Tim.

Director Miguel Arteta ("Chuck and Buck," "The Good Girl") has a light touch, quirky sensibility and a good heart, and infuses them into the story, built around Tim's efforts to suck up to the convention's influential chair (Kurtwood Smith).

Tim is dopily gung-ho about the corny team-building exercises - scavenger hunts, karaoke, etc. - they sound perfectly awful, but Arteta throws a curve and makes them seem like good fun.

And there's genuine bonding (and a Capralike arc) among the principals. The jaded convention vets fall for vulnerable Tim, and rally to protect him from crooked insurance sharks, from the friendly girl in the lobby he doesn't realize is a hooker, from the meth dealers whose party he crashes.

Whitlock gets big laughs in the dealer-party scene, but "Cedar Rapids" isn't a big-laugh movie, it's nice, low-key, offbeat affair, although it's just raunchy enough to earn an "R" rating.

And also a movie with something on its mind. A late-breaking corruption theme has a small-time insurance focus, but a bigger target is suggested. (The initials AIG come to mind.)

Lippe is a straight-arrow, play-by-the-rules guy who finds himself in a rigged game.

Do you know anyone like that?

One-percent yield on a CD, anyone?

Cedar Rapids

Directed by Miguel Arteta. With Stephen Root, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Kurtwood Smith, Alia Shawkat, Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Thomas Lennon, Rob Corddry, Sigourney Weaver. Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Running time: 1 hours, 26 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for crude and sexual content, language and drug use).