New in Town

(2009) ** Pg
96 min. Lionsgate. Director: Jonas Elmer. Cast: Renee Zellweger, Harry Connick Jr., Frances Conroy, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Nancy Drake.

/content/films/3327/2.jpgIf you’re an easy judge of romantic comedies who just wants a pleasant timewaster this week, I won’t begrudge you New in Town. That said, I'm obligated to point out that it's wholly unoriginal, unrealistic, and unambitious. This amusing but terribly by-the-numbers rom com stars Renée Zellweger as Lucy Hill, a fish out of water a la Michael J. Fox in Doc Hollywood. She’s a city slicker from Miami sent by her food company to revamp and downsize the operations of a plant in New Ulm, Minnesota. In the freezing winter. It may be Minnesota, but it looks a lot like North Dakota, specifically Fargo.

Of course, Lucy dresses in skirts and heels and talks in runs of corporate jargon, inviting hazing from the male workers and pity from the town’s female scrapbookers. Then there’s Ted, the local union rep, an eligible stud played by Harry Connick Jr. Will Lucy and Ted find romance? Will Lucy earn the respect of the common worker? Will the plant be saved from threats of closure? These and other rhetorical questions are answered in New in Town, recently trimmed for a PG rating and maximum blandness. Screenwriters Kenneth Rance and C. Jay Cox (Sweet Home Alabama) and director Jonas Elmer (a Danish transplant whose films are unknown here) work through the shopworn material as if they're side by side on the Munck Foods assembly line.

Some compensation comes from the performances--none to write home about, but they let some sun shine in to the dull script. Zellweger gamely plays a character that doesn't resemble anyone on Planet Earth, adding some reasonably skilled pratfalls to the mix. Connick gives a natural, low-key performance as the nice-guy love interest, and veterans Siobhan Fallon Hogan, J.K. Simmons and Frances Conroy play their sitcomedic roles with the professional craft of singers asked to perform the National Anthem for the 3000th time.

It's all in service of a plot that suggests anyone in business has a cold, cold heart, and only in the ironic setting of a cold Midwestern winter can that heart be thawed by the down-home generosity of spirit of "salt of the earth" types. At this late date, it's not only a hackneyed plot, but a condescending one. The film has running references to an amazing tapioca recipe that could be a metaphor for the lumps the characters take in the film's sea of sweetness. But the recipe of New in Town isn't secret, and it tastes like pablum to me.

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