"New in Town" is set in a wintry, snowbound Minnesotan community so authentically frigid that one almost gets frostbite just soaking in the images. Fortunately, the act of watching it is markedly less painful. Directed by Danish filmmaker Jonas Elmer (in his English-language debut), this formulaic, fish-out-of-water romantic comedy ironically brings nothing new to the table, yet does feature a sporadic down-home charm. The culprits are the stereotypical screenplay by C. Jay Cox (2002's "Sweet Home Alabama
") and newcomer scribe Ken Rance, and the hacksaw editing by Troy Takaki (2007's "Because I Said So
"). It's pretty clear that a whole lot of material is currently gathering dust on the cutting-room floor.
In a bid to climb her way up the corporate ladder, Miami-based dairy company executive Lucy Hill (Renee Zellweger) volunteers to travel to one of their factories in New Ulm, Minnesota, to "usher in a new phase." In reality, she is there to downsize employment by fifty percent, a truth that factory leader Stu Kopenhafer (J.K. Simmons) smells right away. Lucy, who has vowed not to get attached to the people of this small northern town, is particularly ill-equipped in handling her stridently different new surroundings. She also doesn't make the best of first impressions, insulting the parenting of Ted Mitchell (Harry Connick Jr.) at a dinner she is invited to before learning that he is the all-important local union rep. Little by little, though, Lucy warms to New Ulm and ingratiates herself to the friendly residents, including tapioca-making assistant Blanche Gunderson (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) and Ted's 13-year-old, initially plain-jane daughter Bobbie (Ferron Guerreiro). She even wrestles with a possible romance with Ted himself. Suddenly, her low-brow motives for the business trip aren't so easily carried out. How can she take away the livelihoods of such good, honest, hardworking people?
"New in Town" is pleasant enough while it happens before you, but also frustrating. Lucy Hill is the protagonist of the piece, and in a lot of ways the antagonist. Clench-fisted but bearing a sympathetic side, Lucy nonetheless is inadequately developed at the onsetvirtually nothing is learned about her life before she steps foot in Minnesotaand only cursorily deepened as the story moves forward. A touching scene in which she talks about her childhood relationship with her custodial worker father is all the background we ever receive and, even as the holidays pass by during her stay in New Ulm, no other family is ever referenced.
A victim of poor editing, plot points are brought up and dropped without a moment's notice. One character disappears for a long time, and when he shows back up no mention is made of what happened to him. Meanwhile, Lucy's trouble in handling the factory and its disgruntled workers is not resolved around the Thanksgiving holiday, and isn't so much as touched upon again until the following February. While these critical details are washed over, the film wastes time with hunting expeditions, a Whoville-like scene of caroling around the town's Christmas tree, and a make-over montage that goes nowhere. A gung-ho, "let's-save-the-factory" climax is predictable, natch, but also ridiculous; marketing low-fat tapioca pudding to children, and forcing the viewer to believe such a product would become a sales bonanza in a matter of weeks, is too tough to swallow even for such a lightweight production as this.
Amidst the spare parts and colorful supporting characters, the love story is mostly an afterthought. Renee Zellweger (2008's "Leatherheads
") is her usual charismatic self as Lucy Hill, and she does about as well as could be expected from such an uneven script. Her relationship with Ted is amiable, but there isn't any fire there. Casting Harry Connick Jr. (2007's "P.S. I Love You
") as Zellweger's romantic co-star was a mistake; he is dull, wooden, and far too safe a choice. Faring better is Siobhan Fallon Hogan (2008's "Baby Mama
"), beaming with warmth as the virtuous, talkative Blanche Gunderson. Unapologetic about who she is on the inside and out, Blanche is as close as the picture gets to humanizing the "yah, you betcha" locals of New Ulm. Among the others, Frances Conroy (2007's "The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising
") is given nothing of substance to do as Trudy Van Uuden. Either Conroy's part was greatly reduced in the final edit, or the makers simply overcompensated by hiring someone of her staggering talent for a nothing role.
"New in Town" garners some smiles, a few chuckles, and one or two gently affecting moments of soul-searching as it moves toward the finish line. Said upbeat conclusion, however, comes too easily and doesn't quite earn it. With the romance lacking spunk, the plot never rising above cornball, and most of the comedy deriving from physical pratfalls and the overblown portrayal of the Minnesotan population, the film's emotional impact is negligible. There is a better movie hiding just out of reach from what has shown up on the screen. The viewer senses it as they watch, but are let down when it never quite reveals itself.