With the great Ed Helms in the lead, Miguel Arteta‘s Cedar Rapids (Fox Searchlight, 2.11) may look like another raunchy, wild-ass Hangover-type deal in a midwestern setting. Well, it is somewhat, I guess, but it’s a much better thing than The Hangover because it’s a comedy about values , and it basically cares about people in a way you can really accept and settle in with.

(l. to. r) Whitlock, Reilly, Heche, Helms.

It’s a commercial confection, sure, but it’s about trust and corruption and naivete and mad sex in swimming pools, and about friends doing for each other when the chips are down. It has principles, feelings…a soul.

Phil Johnston‘s script, in short, is about way more than just trying to generate laughter. It and Arteta and producers Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (i.e., the Sideways guys) are working on a level that The Hangover never dreamt of. Now watch the Eloi go to the plexes next month and say, “Hoo-hah, not bad, pretty funny…but it would have been a little bit better if Helms had lost another tooth.” People never seem to appreciate that it’s a much better, higher-plane thing to blend laughs and feelings and values than to just blow confetti out of your ass.

Helms plays a touchingly but almost ludicrously naive small-town insurance salesman — his values and sexual attitudes are roughly that of a solemn-minded 15 year-old — who’s sent by his boss to a big insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His assignment is to secure a kind of good business seal of approval prize that his company has won three years previously, and which enhances its value in the same way that a positive review from Robert Parker makes life great for winemakers.

Things go to hell, of course, when he arrives at the convention hotel and his assumptions and beliefs graudally fall apart. A back-home love affair with an older ex-teacher (Sigourney Weaver) goes down the tubes, and nocturnal shenanigans get him in trouble with the convention’s big cheese (Kurtwood Smith), and then an encounter with corruption further darkens his brow.

But the donkey-ish Helms finds allies in three newfound chums — a loutish party animal type (John C. Reilly), a hot insurance-rep mom looking to kick out the jams when she’s away from her husband and kid (Anne Heche) and a straight-laced workaholic (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) — and together they stumble through and bond together against the hypocrites and the skunks. And Helms — who doesn’t make fun of his character in the slightest — leaves the schoolboy mindset behind to some extent.

If only the third act wrap-up didn’t come together so easily Cedar Rapids might have been even more, but let’s not quibble over milk not even poured. It isn’t a great film but a very good one. And Reilly gives a howlingly funny, ethically grounded performance that — I’m serious — is good and triumphant enough to be called the first Best Supporting Actor-level turn for 2011. The man is a genius at this sort of thing. The second he arrives on-screen you’re going “uh-oh, the man!…here we go.”

Boiled down, Cedar Rapids is a comedy about facing reality and choosing your friends in an ethically clouded world. It’s partly ape humor, and partly warm and reflective. I don’t want to build it up too much — it ain’t art — but it is roughly akin to Billy Wilder‘s The Apartment in that it’s about a youngish insurance company employee (Jack Lemmon played his variation 50 years ago) waking up to things and deciding which side he’s on.

Is it as good as The Apartment? No. It doesn’t dig in as deeply into personal pain or look at the darker aspects of human nature as bluntly. But it’s an honorable ally of that classic 1960 film. And also those Preston Sturges comedies of the early ’40s about clumsy but lovable dolts (Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve, Eddie Bracken in Hail the Conquering Hero) being confronted by ethical shortcomings in whatever realm.

Cedar Rapids is somewhere between a ground-rule double and a triple — the kind of HE-approved commercial comedy that happens all too rarely. I knew it was a big hit ten minutes in.

The whole cast nails it — Helms, Reilly, Whitlock, Heche, Smith, Alia Shawkat, Rob Corddry, Stephen Root, Mike O’Malley, Thomas Lennon, etc. The producers are Payne, Taylor and Jim Burke. Helms executive produced. And it wasn’t even filmed in Iowa! The principal shooting location was Ann Arbor, Michigan. And cheers again to Johnston’s script.