“New in Town” – Same Old, Same Old – 2 popcorns

popcornBy Michael S. Goldberger, film critic 

Too bad for Renée Zellweger. Plopped into a production company of virtual unknowns, aided only by co-star Harry Connick, Jr., she’s expected to make beguiling the seen-it-before triteness of director Jonas Elmer’s “New in Town.” Though she practically falls off her stiletto heels trying, there’s no saving this city mouse-country mouse cliché.

Last successfully chanced by Diane Keaton in “Baby Boom” (1987), which had charm if not novelty, this poor woman’s version of the chestnut possesses neither. A smattering of witty lines and humorous snippets of otherwise overwrought characterizations occasionally mitigate the onslaught of unabashed, formulaic predictability. 

Still, while unable to be the doomed effort’s Jeanne d’Arc, Miss Zellweger does evince the sort of likeability that has you rooting for her even after you’ve given up on the movie. That added to the rather inane, unchallenging lightness of the script by Ken Rance and C. Jay Cox makes for a fairly painless waste of time, if one is so inclined.

Act #1, Scene #1, corporate go-getter Lucy Hill, happily ensconced in her food firm’s Miami office, has it all. Whenever the director wants to underline that contention, he shows Miss Zellweger determinedly jogging over a causeway, the palm trees framing her success. Of course something is wrong with this picture, even if the script fails to note it. 

Naturally it’ll take a one hundred-eighty degree switch in venue to discover what ails the boardroom Ms. You see, the Minnesota plant needs fixin’ if it’s to launch those new, high protein Rocket Bars. And Hill is just the gal to fix her. So it’s up, up and away to the frigid climes of New Ulm, where it’s culture shock on a stick for the sexy exec.

Now, we could understand being unprepared for winter’s inclemency, Minnesota style, if Miss Zellweger’s Lucy Hill were an absent-minded professor. But she is a corporate shark, modern civilization’s ultimate survivalist. So when she exits the airport not only sans parka, but attired in no more than a cute business suit, one can’t help but feel dissed.

Some nerve Mr. Elmer has. Asking us to abide this lazy filmmaking is like a mere acquaintance expecting an accommodation you’d only accord a friend. Yet, among its few assets the film does establish the location’s icy bitter circumstances. If viewing in winter, staying put and being bored seems preferable to venturing out in frozen protest. 

Plus, while it isn’t good form to make a habit of it, mind you, it is occasionally nice to slum among the easily foreseen and somehow comforting conventions first learned from TV’s Saturday morning cartoons. Movie theaters could legitimize this exercise in reversion by supplying free milk and cookies to those buying tickets for “New in Town.”

In any case, expect Lucy to meet the usual rustic caricatures. First to greet the executive is Siobhan Fallon as secretary Blanche Gunderson. At once fawning and embarrassingly frank, Miss Fallon all too uncomfortably owes her character’s accent and surname to Frances McDormand’s police chief in “Fargo” (1996). 

Others among the similarly derivative townsfolk, most of whom work at the plant, mistrust the interloper. History has proven them right. The typical misconceptions, assumptions and pranks ensue. When Blanche invites Ted Mitchell (Harry Connick, Jr.) to join them in a family dinner, Lucy rails at the presumption. Oops, he’s the Union rep.

It plods along this way. The blame alternates. One moment it seems Lucy is being too city slicker-like; the next instance we feel like taking the locals to task for not exuding more down home hospitality. And when matters bog, we’re tempted to go up to the screen and give the film a needed shove. 

No matter. “New in Town” never veers too widely from its paint-by-numbers script. Thus it comes as no surprise and curiously as no conflict of interest when Lucy and Ted unthaw. It begins as a sub-plot…Lucy helping Ted’s daughter become Cinderella in time for the prom. Trust grows. Ah…what better time for the home office to change its plans?

A bevy of new misunderstandings and recriminations follow. Inopportunely, Blanche finds a list of employees Lucy had intended to terminate. Written in anger, it should have been tossed long ago. Miffed but not retaliatory, the secretary assuages the anxiety by cooking up her solution to every problem: Blanche’s famed tapioca. There’s a clue there.

The funny thing is, though filmed before the economic crisis was official, the movie stumbles on some timely astuteness. When the city mouse-country mouse synergy results in the invention of a better mousetrap, it’s the fiscal equivalent of the cavalry arriving. Albeit fictional, uplifting news makes “New in Town” more welcome than expected.

 “New in Town,” rated PG, is a Lions Gate Films release directed by Jonas Elmer and stars Renée Zellweger, Harry Connick, Jr. and Siobhan Fallon. Running time: 96 minutes  

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