Ed Helms is best known for playing idealistic naifs. Stu in The Hangover hopes for the best with his domineering fiancée. Andy Bernard in “The Office” keeps hoping for love when women walk all over him. In his latest film, Cedar Rapids, Helms plays an insurance man exposed to the corruption and debauchery of an insurance convention for the first time.
“I wish I were that,” Helms said during a roundtable interview at the Sundance Film Festival. “I think I wish I gave people more benefit of the doubt. I wish I were less judgmental, so there’s some fantasy fulfillment in doing these characters because I’m a cynical bastard, but I’m sort of a self-loathing cynic.”
Cedar Rapids’ Tim Lippe gives Helms more of a full arc than his supporting characters. “It immediately struck a chord and resonated because it’s just about a guy who’s intrinsically good and desperate to stay good, but so unaware of how the world works. I actually really relate to that. I kind of feel like I stumble through the world just constantly wondering why people act the way they do. Why is this this way? How’d that get there and who made this? So that sort of just wide eyed confusion is something that I actually have and probably just do a better job than Tim of hiding. It’s also just there’s a warmth to it and a hopefulness. I like that. I like putting that energy out there.”
With crack parties and naked swimming pool orgies, Cedar Rapids has lots of crazy comedy shenanigans. Within that Helms thinks there is a real character study.
“I think people bring different things to this movie. To some people it’s kind of ridiculous and cartoonish. To other people it has a reality and a poignancy. I feel like the way the story unfolds, the more you learn about Tim Lippe, the more you understand him and where he came from, the more who he is makes sense. I think it’s really plausible. I really wasn’t interested in this particular movie in making a broad ridiculous character choice. I just think that Tim is, I don’t know, from a storytelling standpoint, it gives us all a chance to see the world in a different way. His naivety complicates things. On the one hand it just looks like a guy goes to Cedar Rapids, gets in over his head and kind of grows up a little bit and comes back a little wiser. It is that but it’s a lot more than that because Tim actually, by just being who he is, has a profound affect on the people around him and he’s not preachy, he doesn’t try to change anyone, but he does because of who he is and I love that. I think it’s a very powerful and subtle storytelling device that [screenwriter] Phil Johnston is a master of.”
Now that Helms has excelled at this sort of character, he might try to go a little darker next time. “I’m kind of open minded. I think that I’ve had a lot of fun playing around in a certain area. I definitely want to go a lot of different directions. Evil is one. Stupid is another. I don’t know, as long as it’s funny, and even with evil characters, I like to think there’s some kind of redemption. If I can find that, I’d be psyched to explore it.”
Cedar Rapids opens Friday.