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Cedar Rapids

A Midwestern Crash Course

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars.

Roger Lemke is the conquering hero of Brown River, Wisconsin. On the eve of his big TV debut — in a commercial for the small-town insurance company he has led to a coveted two-diamond rating four years running — he revels in the adulation of his peers. To them, he’s a celebrity, a master salesman and, most important, a family man.

When Roger (Thomas Lennon) turns up dead — a casualty of his sexual excesses — we learn all we need to know about Cedar Rapids, the terrific new comedy, opening Friday, from Youth in Revolt director Miguel Arteta. Middle America might seem like the country’s last bastion of old-fashioned values, where all it takes to get ahead is a little know-how and a lot of elbow grease, but appearances deceive.

That comes as a surprise to Tim Lippe, Roger’s worshipful colleague suddenly thrust into a starring role at the annual insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Tim (Ed Helms) is the genuine article, an overgrown child living out his boyhood dream of sleeping with his grade-school teacher (Sigourney Weaver) and content to dwell in Roger’s shadow. He has never been on a plane or stayed in a hotel, where he is shocked to learn he’ll be sharing a suite with “an Afro American.”

Tim, now middle-aged, harbors vague aspirations to be a husband and father, but what’s most remarkable about him is how unsettled his life seems to be, and how oblivious he is to the world around him. He’s far too innocent to grasp the concept of a casual fling, much less appreciate that Roger wasn’t all that he seemed, and that not all insurance salesmen are in the game to look out for their customers.

Rapids tells the often-hilarious story of his crash-course initiation into a cynical world of backroom deals and soul-crushing compromises. If Tim threatens briefly to become a device — at first he seems too much of a rube to be anything more than a screenwriter’s mean-spirited parody — it is his unflagging idealism that makes his rite of passage endearing.

Leading him drunkenly through the wreckage of the American Dream is Dean (John C. Reilly), a loud, proudly profane salesman who rails against the hypocrisy of his colleagues; Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr, of HBO’s “The Wire”), whose precise enunciation suggests a man more uptight than he really is; and Joan (Anne Heche), who gently prepares Tim for the messiness of adult relationships.

Helms has played variations on Tim before — as Andy, the emotionally stunted lackey of NBC’s “The Office,” and Stu, the henpecked nerd of The Hangover — but Rapids sees him as something more than a caricature. Sublimely coupled with Reilly, whose riotous wild-man act is grounded in deep-rooted frustrations, he is the straight man learning that a little madness is sometimes the only way to stay sane.