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Ed Helms at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival last month. (Getty Images)
Ed Helms at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival last month. (Getty Images)

Johanna Schneller: Fame Game

Ed Helms: A star who sees virtue in the nerds he plays Add to ...

It's not Ed Helms's fault that his new comedy, Cedar Rapids, perpetrates one of the most infuriating lies in filmdom today. In a conversation with him this week, Helms seemed like a sweet, modest guy. But if I see one more movie where grown-up, multidimensional women fall like bowling pins for a hapless man-child, I think I truly will hurl.

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Helms plays Tim Lippe, a small-town innocent who travels to the titular metropolis for an insurance-sales convention, and winds up misbehaving with fellow agents John C. Reilly (playing a lummox) and Anne Heche (as the group's moll). The film is a fond-ish send-up of middle-American values, filtered through the indie sensibilities of producer Alexander Payne ( Sideways) and director Miguel Arteta ( Chuck & Buck).

But even those sophisticates rely on the same hoary male fantasy that we've already seen in countless movies, including The 40-Year-Old Virgin and anything starring Adam Sandler: a male lead, so gormless that he seems almost developmentally disabled, nevertheless lands in the beds and hearts of estimable women - in this case, Heche, Alia Shawkat and Sigourney Weaver - despite the fact that all of them are so far out of his league that he shouldn't be able spot them with the Hubble telescope.

Come on: Sigourney Weaver? In a fair world, screenwriters would be locked in rooms around the clock, doing nothing but banging out scripts with starring roles for Weaver. Instead, she's playing a recently single woman having a liaison with the infantile Lippe. Weaver does her best, but even she can't pull off looking sexually fulfilled by a man whose only believable relationship to her would be that of the neighbour who shovels her sidewalk.

To his credit, Helms agrees. "In real life, I never had much game," he said. "I wasn't that great with the ladies, especially as a teenager and in my young adulthood. I was confounded by women. So my experience would indicate that, no, great women don't tend to go for confused, wide-eyed rubes."

I accept that movies are vehicles for wish-fulfilment. But I resent that the only wishes modern mainstream cinema cares to fulfill are those of the undercooked men who have somehow risen to positions of power in Hollywood. Their lonely-guy-hits-a-hottie fantasy may seem pretty hot to them, but it completely disregards and demoralizes half of the world's population.

For a much more trenchant, funny and revealing dissection of the way Hollywood treats women than I could ever write, please read Tina Fey's Confessions of a Juggler in the Feb. 14 issue of The New Yorker. It contains the best definition of "crazy women" that you will ever hear. Fey was already a hero of mine, and now I would lie down in traffic for her, because she's one of the few women who have reached a height lofty enough that she can tell it like it is without fear of reprisal. And let me tell you, she's ticked. It's fantastic.

Now that I got that off my chest, back to Helms. He's had a career trajectory that most people (of either sex) wouldn't dare to fantasize about. He grew up in Georgia, went to university in Ohio and moved to New York, where his resonant pipes landed him voiceover work and an agent. He joined the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe, then arrived at comedy mecca - The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. That led to his role on The Office, as the (yes) sweet, nerdy a cappella singer Andy Bernard, which led to The Hangover. That film's mind-blowing success made Helms credible as a leading man.

In comedy, it really can be about who you know. A few years ago, a friend from the Upright Citizens Brigade, Owen Burke, introduced Helms to the screenwriter Phil Johnston, and together they "collaborated on the characters and world" of Cedar Rapids, Helms said, adding: "Then everything from getting Payne and Arteta to the casting - it was all one exciting miracle after another."

Shooting took place in Ann Arbor, Mich., during November and December, in a tiny hotel that remained partly open - so the production shared space with a high-school skating team and a business group. "Being cloistered there forced a certain amount of camaraderie upon us," Helms said. It also helped that Reilly, who was living in a rented house, had everyone over for "a mellow, wonderful night, with great food," Helms said. "I brought my banjo, John had his guitar, and we all sat around and played music."

Helms, who often sings on The Office and in his films, has played guitar and banjo since he was a kid. When he lived in New York, he and two college pals called themselves The Lonesome Trio and played "the occasional dive bar and apartment party," he said. "I'm really passionate about music. I'm either playing or listening to something all the time. It's a huge part of my life."

His life is looking huger all the time. "I get a little bashful when I hear that," Helms said. "I certainly don't feel different. I don't mean to say I'm not aware of what's going on around me, but it's like a birthday. Everybody's like, 'You're another year older, how does it feel?' You're like, 'Well…' I'm still the same guy. I'm still surrounded by the same friends and family, who all know what I giant idiot I am, and constantly remind me, so it would be hard for me to [lose my head]

"But it's insanely exciting," he continued. "It's been an unbelievable couple of years. I just want to keep working on cool stuff."

Helms admits that playing innocent nerds fulfills a fantasy for him - though not the one I was railing about earlier. "I respond to those characters, and I like to play them because I'm a fairly jaded and cynical guy," he said. "But I yearn for that idealism and hope. Tim Lippe believes in people. He hasn't had a loss of innocence, or the life experiences that teach us to mistrust the world. That's such a hopeful, joyful thing. And the transition from that to a more aware person can be so heartbreaking and hilarious. It's guided so many great stories, like All My Sons or Catcher in the Rye.

"And when you believe or assume the best of people around you, you actually bring out the best in them," Helms summed up. "Lippe's a fish out of water, but the film is not just about him being overwhelmed and having crazy experiences. He's actually profoundly affecting everyone around him. The other, morally ambiguous characters really rise to the occasion. Everything that's good in them starts to gush out because of Tim. Just by being who he is, and giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, he sparks something."

Fair enough. But it still seems unlikely that Anne Heche would take him to bed.

Follow on Twitter: @JoSchneller

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