New in Town (Lion’s Gate; PG-13)

film_new-in-town_sm.jpgThis is a more entertaining film than others of its type, thanks to Zellweger’s nicely grounded and appealing performance.








I have friends who really don’t care for Renee Zellweger. They don’t like her distinctive squint, they don’t think she’s attractive and they don’t seem to be all that impressed with her acting, either. Well, beauty—and whatever sort of quirky uniqueness it is that makes Zellweger stand out—is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. I actually think the actress is quite talented, and refreshingly different from other female stars on the mid-range film circuit these days. Zellweger first grabbed my attention way back when in the fairly awful but selectively interesting movie Empire Records. I liked how she uttered the line "Sinead O’Rebellion!" to a fellow record store employee who’d shaved her head to be different, and I liked her offbeat looks. So as long as a movie is reasonably entertaining, as New in Town certainly is, I’ll give Zellweger the benefit of the doubt, even when she’s not groundbreaking or anything

In this film, directed by Danish newcomer Jonas Elmer, Zellweger plays Lucy Hill, a self-assured Miami business consultant who is sent to the snowbound burgh of New Ulm, Minnesota to oversee the "restructuring" of a blue-collar manufacturing plant that’s been underperforming. What follows is more or less a standard "fish out of water" story, combined with Fargo-style ambience and dialogue (wisely, the filmmakers cut down on the "Oh yah!" utterances so prevalent in that film in favor of more individualistic colloquialisms). But God knows that distinctive northern accent is there, especially in the person of office secretary Blanche Gunderson (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) — and is it a mere coincidence that "Gunderson" was also the last name of the heroine in Fargo? Blanche invites Lucy over for a home-cooked meal and tries to educate her in the local ways and means, something Lucy’s only half paying attention to while she tries not to fall in her mega high business heels or freeze her ass off. Snow is everywhere, and cinematographer Chris Seager wastes no opportunity to convey what a relentless winter landscape our poor Miami babe has found herself in.

Lucy immediately alienates most of the plant’s workers by being too coolly business-like and not very upfront about changes in store. One of them, the foreman Stu Kopenhafer (the always excellent J.K. Simmons, memorable in films such as the Spiderman trilogy and the recent Burn After Reading) makes no bones about his dislike for Lucy, and quickly draws her ire, getting himself canned in the process. And Lucy callously insults Blanche’s dinner guest Ted Mitchell (Harry Connick Jr.), whom she writes off as a beer-swilling bumpkin. Big mistake: turns out he’s the plant’s union representative. Naturally, you can see this plot development coming a mile away—icy exec finds her emotions thawing when confronted by the casual charm and sincere manner of this very masculine local. Could romance be in store? Uh, do Minnesotans go ice fishing in the woods?

After Ted rescues Lucy from a snow-laden road’s attempt to gobble up her car, the overall vibe begins to change. "You’re not so bad when you’re unconscious," says the smitten union dude. And Lucy finds that these neighborly locals—who do things like sing Christmas carols outside while holding candles (a genuinely touching scene), make quilts together and argue over tapioca recipes (everyone wants Blanche’s whammo formula)—are changing her perspective on things, realigning her values, so to speak. And this’ll create one of the film’s core conflicts when the big bad execs down south order her to close the plant, something that will put all these people she’s learned to appreciate out of work. Can Lucy find a solution, and save face with her new pals? Is there a future for her and Ted? Are formulaic movies dubbed that for a reason? Actually, this is a more entertaining film than others of its type, thanks to Zellweger’s nicely grounded and appealing performance. Fallon Hogan delivers a memorable performance as well, and Connick, while not asked to do much besides be charismatic, is likable enough. So I enjoyed the movie overall. But yeah, it’s an assembly line product, the kind of likable fluff the locals in the film often eat for dessert. Recommended, though, for fans of Ms. Zellweger, fans of movies set in winter, and couples looking for a low-risk option for a weekend date. | Kevin Renick

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