At first glance, Ed Helms doesn’t seem like an ideal leading man. Usually the second, third, or fourth fiddle within larger ensembles, the former Daily Show correspondent has consistently amused without carrying too much weight upon his figurative shoulders. Take 2009’s ubiquitous smash The Hangover, for example; as Stu, the nebbish dentist who drunkenly marries a stripper, Helms pitches in sharp lines and shit-his-pants facial reactions like a pro, without having to carry the film as a whole. The same goes for his snarkier work on NBC’s The Office, in which he’s able to play off a deep cast of fellow comedic talents. But giving Helms the wheel entirely? It’s not as sure of a thing.

cedar rapids helmsThat is, until now, courtesy of the new comedy Cedar Rapids. A character-driven comedy, the latest film from director Miguel Arteta (who recently helmed the off-kilter Michael Cera flick Youth In Revolt) succeeds in large part due to its impeccably matched cast, ably fronted by Helms, though Cedar Rapids is ultimately  a team effort. As usual, he’s surrounded by a great supporting crew, including a delightfully crass John C. Reilly, a bubbly and pretty hot Anne Heche, and The Wire’s Isaiah Whitlock Jr., playing against type while nailing a couple of perfectly timed references to his old, iconic, HBO show.

In an impressive bit of self-manipulation, Helms plays a role that’s essentially an even more uptight Stu from The Hangover, but manages to shape the character, Tim Lippe, into something far richer. Lippe is an underappreciated and sheltered insurance agent from a rinky-dink Wisconsin town who’s banging his one of his old grade school teachers (Sigourney Weaver, still a fox in her early 60s). After the flashiest agent (Thomas Lennon) in his company, BrownStar Insurance, unexpectedly kills himself, Lippe is sent to the annual Cedar Rapids insurance convention. There, he gets mixed up with a motley crew of convention-regulars: Dean Zielger (Reilly), a skirt-chasing, alcohol-loving party-man trapped inside a three-piece suit; Joan (Heche), a married woman looking for non-spousal distractions; Ronald (Whitlock, Jr.), a well-mannered elder statesman; and Bree (Alia Shawkat), the young prostitute ready to jump upon the lonely insurance gents.

cedar rapids reillyAmplifying his Step Brothers persona up to the eleventh decibel, Reilly scores the film’s biggest laughs, chiming in with bathroom humor that feels more ad-libbed than scripted. It’s in his performance, however, that the movie’s biggest strength is tangible: Reilly treats the flagrant Dean like an actual human being, not a caricature. Per Johnston’s thoughtful script, Dean uses his boorish attitude to conceal domestic scars caused by a rotten divorce. Arteta finds quick yet effective ways to illustrate this hidden agenda, such as a brief bedtime montage culminating in a shot of Dean staring at a photo of his ex-wife. Not to get all soft here, but there’s something to be said about comedies just as willing to elicit sympathy as they are belly laughs. Laughing at the witty banter between Helms and Heche is one thing; hoping she’ll drop the hubbie and stick with Lippe, which Cedar Rapids does effortlessly, is another.

The impending months of 2011 are loaded with higher-profile comedies: Your Highness, The Hangover Part II, Bad Teacher. The list goes on. Don’t be surprised, though, if, when the smoke clears and humor-fiends are compiling their respective “Best of 2011” countdowns, Cedar Rapids climbs its way to the top. Forgoing an abundance of gross-out humor and ridiculous sight gags, Arteta and screenwriter Phil Johnston have combined for a movie that’s humorous without going overboard, goofy yet warm-hearted and mindful of its characters.