© 2009 Ray Wong
Renée Zellweger seems to have been stuck in a rut lately. Since her Oscar-winning performance in Cold Mountain, she's turned her attention to romantic comedies, and the result has been less than stellar. Perhaps she should take Kate Winslet's advice and do a holocaust movie. Or perhaps she should read the scripts before committing to the projects.
Lucy Hill (Renée Zellweger) is an ambitious business executive from Miami living what she considers a good life -- fast track up the corporate ladder, a posh condo, and an active life as a single woman. But being the only woman in the management team means she's to work harder, and soon she finds herself being sent to do a thankless job -- going to a small town in Minnesota, in the dead of winter, to downsize a manufacturing plant. Determined to do what it takes to succeed, Lucy sets out to get in and get out of the god-forsaken town as quickly as possible.
There, she meets a slew of folksy townspeople, most of whom work at the plant which is pretty much the biggest employer. There is Blanche (Siobhan Fallon), her executive assistant who doesn't quite know personal boundaries, and Stu (J.K. Simmons), the beloved foreman who doesn't take Lucy seriously. And Ted (Harry Connick Jr.), the widowed union rep whom Blanche is trying to fix up with Lucy.
Lucy, of course, would have nothing to do with these hillbillies. She's supposed to automate the plant and lay off half the employees. But the more she gets to know these people, the more she understands what's been missing in her life. And despite her first impression, she realizes just how sexy the down-to-earth union rep really is...
Renée Zellweger (Leatherheads) is not a bad actress, but she needs materials that play to her talent and ability, not the other way around. Lately she simply hasn't found the type of roles like the one that netted her an Oscar. Here, she's trying to act cute and sassy but something is off. At first she comes off as smug, and a bit too "weathered." She eases into the role much much as she comes back down to Earth to play a more simple person. Zellweger isn't necessarily miscast here, but she hasn't really risen above the material either.
Harry Connick Jr. (P.S. I Love You) is an odd choice for the "hillbilly" love interest. He does okay, displaying an disarming charm. But his role is too calm, despite an earlier scene in which he and Zellweger get into a verbal spat, to make an impression. He is just blend as the romantic lead.
The supporting cast is rather good in their stereotypical parts, with Siobhan Fallon (Baby Mama) in an amiable role as the meddling secretary. Her fake accent is a bit off-putting, as are that of the other "Minnesotans." J.K. Simmons (Burn After Reading) is his normal goofy, grumpy self, playing the grizzly foreman.
Written by Ken Rance (Wednesday Afternoon) and C. Jay Cox (Latter Days), the screenplay is lame at best, contrived at worst. It's your typical fish-out-of-water story, and the writers pick the most polar (pun intended) opposites: sunny Miami and deep-freeze Minnesota. The problem is, as a comedy, the plot and characters are uninspiring, cliched and stereotypical. I wonder what Minnesotans think about this. The jokes are lame and the characters lack certain believability. Even the courtship between Lucy and Ted seems forced, even though the leads have good chemistry together. There mutual attraction is there, but the progression of their relationship is so trivial.
There are two plot threads going on, one involving the unlikely romance between Lucy and Ted, and the other involving the townsfolk and plant. To the writers' credit, they manage to mesh the two subplots together. The problem is that neither has enough dramatic conflict to sustain the film. The plots move along fine, but somehow we just really don't care, especially since everything is so predictable. We know from the every first scene where the story is going.
Danish director Jonas Elmer (Nynne) keeps the plot moving and the characters' interactions simple. The production is workmanlike but it's surprising to see how plain everything looks, even in sunny Miami. I've seen better production value in TV shows.
New in Town is a tired, conventional romantic comedy that may have worked in the 80s but fails to truly engage today's cynical audiences. It's one film that won't stay in town for too long.
Stars: Renée Zellweger, Harry Connick Jr., Siobhan Fallon, J.K. Simmons, Mike O'Brien, Frances Conroy
Director: Jonas Elmer
Writers: Ken Rance, C. Jay Cox
MPAA Rating: PG for language and some suggestive material
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Script – 5
Performance – 6
Direction – 5
Cinematography – 6
Editing – 7
Production – 6
Total – 5.6 out of 10