by Farihah Zaman
New in Town
Dir. Jonas Elmer, U.S., Lions Gate
“New in Town is Legally Blonde meets Sweet Home Alabama”— so intoned by an anonymous critic at the tail end of a thirty-second TV spot. This zinger of a pull-quote, referencing the absolute middle of the rom-com sludge pile, portended a triumph of mediocrity. With such modest expectations it would seem impossible for New in Town to disappoint, and yet it does, spectacularly, falling short even of the low bar set by Sweet Home Alabama, flitting by a host of familiar tropes without acquiring any of their virtues. The revenge of the underdog, the working-class hero, the uptown girl who falls for the downtown man—all comforting, all touched on briefly, then quickly left behind by Danish director Jonas Elmer in his English-language debut as though, even with a blueprint, these prefabricated pieces were too difficult to arrange correctly. Perhaps that’s why New in Town is a financial bust, one of the few true flops of an early 2009 that has seen escapist comedies and blue collar parables drawing audiences by the barrelful.
Renée Zellweger plays Lucy Hill, a ball-busting yet oddly oafish corporate drone from the home office in Miami who grudgingly accepts an assignment in New Ulm, Minnesota. It’s unclear exactly what the plant does, but her job seems to consist only of crafting middle-school diary–style lists of who’s getting fired and who’s like, so not, openly demeaning her employees, and delivering preposterously scripted, excruciatingly slow capitalist sermons from on high. At first her resolve to lay off most of the plant engineers and head back home to her high-powered life as soon as possible is only reinforced by freezing temperatures and local Fargo-esque caricatures like Harry Connick Jr.’s beer-guzzling roughneck widower with a heart of gold, Siobhan Fallon’s kindly bible-thumping, scrapbook crafting, matchmaking secretary, and J.K. Simmons’s grizzly bear of a plant foreman. Of course, as the months go by, she comes to realize that perhaps it isn’t New Ulm that’s got things backward. Touched by the simple and hardworking (e.g. ice fishing) folk of the town, she risks her career to save their jobs by harvesting local creativity in a feat of anti-corporate, pro-worker derring-do.
Pitting the small-town worker against big-city industry is certainly clichéd, but in the right hands, and in an economic climate such as this, it need only be as shopworn as your favorite hand-knit sweater. It was a popular theme in the depression-era 1930s, popping up in films from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town or government funded propaganda titles like The City, and its long lineage includes the Thatcher-England Local Hero (also an era of encroaching free markets) and even the aforementioned Sweet Home Alabama, all of which use the premise to enrich storylines, heighten dramatic tension, and connect to the audience by capturing the financial zeitgeist. Choosing the hardships of Main Street America as a backdrop for the film’s real interest—the burgeoning cross-class romance between Connick Jr. and Zellweger—could have been effective here as well if only the theme hadn’t been left so underdeveloped. New in Town evinces no awareness of its potential relevance; the writers could have inserted a sports facility, hospital, college, or a desert island in place of the factory.
With the rich possibilities of the setting squandered, the writers only manage to effectively raise up down-home values, allowing the townsfolk to first wear down Lucy’s pride with little humiliations wrapped in kindness, before gently teaching her the error of her ways. The script seems to provide embarrassments both great and small for its Academy Award–winning star. One lengthy sequence revolves around an inexplicably braless Zellweger sporting prominently cold-hardened nipples, while in another Connick Jr. lets her know, with all the charm of a date rapist, “You’re cute when you’re unconscious.” The broad humor and physical comedy would seem tailor-made for “Bridget Jones” herself, but her standard-issue take on the corporate drone—mincing around in disturbingly fetishized five-inch heels, coldy spewing business jargon—doesn’t help the weak screenplay. Zellweger goes straight for the obvious beats of the confused script, forgoing character work in favor of overplaying out-of-place Lucy’s physical awkwardness in a kind of relentlessly joyless seizure. Additionally, Zellweger appears to have done something to her face that has severely limited even her infamously inexpressive Gummi Bear squint. Perhaps we could give her the benefit of the doubt and assume it was the cold.
New in Town’s worst crime, however, is its disservice to the romantic comedy. Another stalwart of recession-era cinema, the screwball comedy is a thing of intelligence and careful crafting, hinging on charm and wit. Today’s pleasantly bland rom-coms generally echo their betters well enough to at least be considered “guilty pleasures,” but New in Town barely even warrants having on in the background while cleaning the house. The sassy, manic examples from the 1930s looked back to the droll, dry dialogue of 1920s writers like Evelyn Waugh and the slightly trashy, and thus lamentably overlooked Nancy Mitford, but screenwriters C. Jay Cox and Ken Rance seem unaware that comedy existed before Friends. The film’s only redeemable quality is its cinematography, which eschews gloss in favor of a simple, delicately dour palette.
In the same week I viewed Elmer’s film, I had the pleasure of watching The Awful Truth, reinvigorating my faith in the genre and placing New in Town’s shortcomings in sharp relief. While it may obviously be incomparable to that Leo McCarey classic, it lacks even the spunk of Legally Blonde, the romantic spark of Sweet Home Alabama, and Reese Witherspoon’s redeeming leading performances in both of those films. Where Elmer does succeed is in creating an apt cinematic vessel for Zellweger's Lucy Hill; like the character, his film is clumsy and blunt.