Small-town BLUES

The Baltimore Sun

New in Town, set in New Ulm, a snowy rural Minnesota hamlet with a population of roughly 13,000, contains so many "don'tcha knows" in the dialogue that you wish Tina Fey's Sarah Palin would show up to add a few "you betchas." She'd be right at home with everything from the casual invocations of Jesus to the hockey, ice-fishing and crow-shooting (though small game is more Dick Cheney's line). Instead, all we see is hard-driving single career woman Lucy Hill (Renee Zellweger) enduring an excruciating series of comeuppances. An executive in a company called Munk (the locals call people like her "Munkies,"), Hill leaves corporate headquarters in Miami for New Ulm to downsize a food factory and retool it for a product line of energy bars.

Directed by Jonas Elmer and written by Ken Rance and C. Jay Cox in an alternately strident and sappy style that makes their heroine and her neighbors look like idiots, New in Town is a lose-lose romantic comedy. It presents Hill as a high-powered dunce who talks to her workers in corporate jargon about "prioritizing," and Harry Connick Jr. as the local union rep who drips with old-fashioned manliness and beer.

When Hill shows up in New Ulm with a battery of matched suitcases and a wardrobe from Dress for Success, she praises big-city life for its culture but never appears to have seen Fargo. The filmmakers sure have. The accents are either high-pitched and singsong or deep and clipped; the dulled emotions and deadpan humor are so overdone that they seem clownish. The local color in this movie is entirely secondhand - a creative disaster, because the local color is mostly white-on-white in the first place. (Unsurprisingly, it was filmed in Canada, not Minnesota.)

As a comic fable for hard times, New in Town is irredeemably moronic. The usually keen J.K. Simmons blusters his way through the role of the factory foreman who refuses to help Hill revamp the facility and insults her from the outset. On the other hand, she doesn't level with anyone about her orders to reduce the work force by 50 percent, even after she falls for Connick's dedicated union man, an out-of-towner himself and a soulful widower and single dad. (He moved there so his wife could be close to the Mayo Clinic.) When the company orders her to take more extreme measures, Hill, who grows to love New Ulm as well as the new man in her life, decides enough is enough and hatches a plan to save the day.

New in Town becomes a warped Far North version of Norma Rae, celebrating Hill's entrepreneurial spirit as well as a local recipe. Let's just say I will find it hard to forgive New in Town for making me think of those horrible lines from the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie: "Tap-tap, Tap-tap, Tapioca. Everybody freeze!"

Although Zellweger makes you feel the instant chill of Hill's first exposure to the Minnesota cold, she delivers just a few moments of physical comedy. Hill starts out so wound-up that there's only cheap pleasure to be had from seeing her pop a few springs. Connick delivers the relaxation she and the audience need, though he might have provided more in the personality department if the filmmakers had let him sing. In her tailored suits, Zellweger moves her rump with such an irritating, tick-tock regularity that she could have served as a metronome.

New in Town

(Lionsgate) Starring Renee Zellweger, Harry Connick Jr. (both pictured). Directed by Jonas Elmer. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. Time 97 minutes.

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