New in Town (United States, 2009)

January 28, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
New in Town Poster

Spoiler Alert: To the extent that the term "spoiler" can be applied to something this formulaic, I suppose I ought to warn readers that I talk in general terms about how the movie ends.

What do you get when you mix A Christmas Carol with a substandard romantic comedy, an unreasonable injection of mawkishness, and characters with Palin-esque appeal? The unappetizing answer is New in Town, a movie that tries so hard to be sweet, agreeable, and uplifting that it nearly caused me to throw up. The average romantic comedy generally treads on the border of sugar shock territory but when one combines all the sappy ingredients proffered by Danish director Jonas Elmer (in his Hollywood debut), the result is almost unbearable. In addition to the usual happy-ending romantic fantasy in which the protagonists find lasting love, New in Town also give audiences a fable for hard times: the blue-collar plant that is saved from closing. Nothing better to salt the wounds of the unemployed than this.

Renee Zellweger combines Katharine Hepburn and Scrooge into a single character as she plays Lucy Hill, tough career woman sent from balmy Miami to frigid Minnesota when her corporation decrees that she should be the one to optimize a local factory's output. That means updating mechanization and laying off workers. Of course, Lucy's first impression of the town where she'll be staying and the hicks who live there is not positive. She is shocked by the lack of sophistication shown by her new secretary, Blanche Gunderson (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), and the local union representative, Ted Mitchell (Harry Connick Jr.). She and Ted fight like cats and dogs, but that's only foreplay. And, as much as they might be trying to channel Hepburn and Tracey, the screenplay works against them. Sophisticated banter this isn't.

In its pursuit of the happy ending, New in Town leaves no stone unturned. Lucy's character arc requires that she make the Christmas Eve transformation (sans ghosts) from a corporate-minded bitch to someone who would love to turn her back on Miami and live in a small northern town. The romance requires that the opposites not only attract but become stuck together. And the factory must be kept open through the miraculous production of tapioca to avoid the town turning into Flint, Michigan West. I'm not opposed to feel-good movies, but they need to be intelligently written and competently produced. This is neither. The film's clumsy attempts to manipulate the audience into caring about these one-dimensional caricatures would be funny if they weren't intended to be serious.

New in Town was in the can before anyone outside of Alaska knew who Sarah Palin was, so it's somewhat remarkable that the supposed appeal of the characters in this film lies in the same small town folksiness (complete with accent) that made Palin an international celebrity. It's also worth mentioning that this film's Gunderson talks a lot like another film's Gunderson, although that's where any similarities between New in Town and Fargo end. (One can't help but wonder whether the name was ripped off from Fargo. Seems too coincidental to be an accident.)

Another area in which the movie stumbles is in its inability to generate any semblance of romantic tension between the two leads. Not only are Renee Zellweger and Harry Connick Jr. poorly matched but the love story gets shortchanged by the needs of so many other subplots. There are too few scenes with the characters together, their "spicy" dialogue is banal, and the relationship is so underdeveloped that it's difficult to believe they have fallen for each other. When did that happen? Are there missing scenes? Is the connective tissue of the romance playing on the cutting room floor? In good romantic comedies, viewers become invested in a lasting, meaningful connection between the leads. Here, the man is from Mars and the woman is from Venus, and neither appears willing to slip out of his or her orbit. There's more genuine affection between the Wiley Coyote and Road Runner than there is between these two.

In the long run, New in Town will represent just another forgettable romantic comedy that slides in and out of theaters without many people noticing. Neither Renée Zellweger nor Harry Connick Jr. has enough star power to suck in unspecting viewers and, no matter how charismatic each might be on his or her own, they're boring as a couple. The movie has little to recommend it and more than a few things to encourage those who pursue quality cinema to stay away.

New in Town (United States, 2009)

Director: Jonas Elmer
Cast: Renee Zellweger, Harry Connick Jr., Siobhan Fallon Hogan, J.K. Simmons
Screenplay: Kenneth Rance and C. Jay Cox
Cinematography: Chris Seager
Music: John Swihart
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate
Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: 2009-01-30
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1