Before I sat through Jonas Elmer’s New in Town on Sunday afternoon, I’d have said that putting J.K. Simmons and a T. Rex song in a movie could only help. Now I know better. Neither the usually reliable Mr. Simmons, nor Marc Bolan’s “20th Century Boy” do a blessed thing to help thaw this icebound exercise in romantic comedy at its most primitive. You’ve seen everything offered here before. You’ve seen it done better, too.
The story’s that old wheeze about the tough-minded career gal (65 years ago Rosalind Russell would have been handed the assignment) from the big city who gets sent to make changes at a dinky manufacturing plant in the sticks that’s been taken over by a large corporation. The natives are strange creatures for her—and us—to gawk at, make fun of and feel superior to for two-thirds of the movie. Then she—and we—see the error of our ways, realize that these are the real people who’ve “got it right.” Of course, it doesn’t hurt matters any that our tough-minded career gal finds romance in the form of a champion-of-the-little-man union boss (65 years ago Fred MacMurray would have done just fine).
In the case of New in Town, we get Renée Zellweger as Lucy Hill, the corporate-ladder-climbing heel in need of some life lessons, and Harry Connick Jr. as Ted Mitchell, the “just folks” union man. (Yes, they “meet cute” in one of those loathe-at-first-sight encounters.) Lucy’s been sent to downsize some dairy-product plant in New Ulm, Minn., where all the locals—especially Blanche Gunderson (Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Baby Mama)—talk like they’ve seen Fargo about 1,500 times too many and say all sorts of unmemorable quaint things. (J.K. Simmons has one line about the digestive workings of a Swede that’s not bad.) Since Lucy is from Miami, this means we not only get every “big city girl versus the rubes” joke known to man, but a dozen or more “Southerner in the frozen north” gags thrown in for good measure. It’s grim stuff indeed.
The worst of this hoary rubbish is that it’s the kind of insulting nonsense that could only come from a Hollywood mind-set that tends to think anyone and everything that isn’t in L.A. or Manhattan is quaint and strange. Never mind that this particular example was directed by an imported Danish director (presumably hired because his little-seen Nynne was likened to Bridget Jones’s Diary by a Variety reviewer), and that one of its writers, Kenneth Rance, actually is from Minnesota. (His cowriter, on the other hand, C. Jay Cox, is responsible for Sweet Home Alabama.)
It’s not so much that the “colorful” characters are strange and quaint, but more that they’re all interchangeably strange and quaint. There’s apparently no one in New Ulm who isn’t into scrapbooking, ice fishing, polkas and Christ. That most of them come across as simpleminded to an alarming degree is even worse. That they’re ultimately viewed as better than the godless city folks still rings hollow—making the film the cinematic equivalent of telling someone online what you think of them and following it up with a little winky face to show you were only fooling.
The clichés are thicker than the ice on the frozen lakes, and the writing is transparent beyond belief. Anyone who’s seen more than 10 films knows full well that any movie that drags in references to Blanche’s famous tapioca six or seven times in the early scenes is setting something up for later in terms of the plot—not to mention a badly choreographed tapioca fight that leaves the participants looking like they just wandered in from a specialized kind of Web site. In the midst of this, we have drunk gags, outdoor-bathroom gags, freezing gags, buckshot-in-the-butt gags, the usual crop of misunderstandings and more freezing gags. It’s supposed to slide by on the goodwill generated by our fondness for Zellweger and Connick Jr. My fondness wore thin somewhere around the 20-minute mark. Rated PG for language and some suggestive material.