Friday, January 30, 2009

Review: "New in Town"

“New in Town” is a romantic comedy starring Renée Zellweger that seems parceled together from a host of other movies, and yet it works. It’s a sweet, funny chick flick without an ironic bone in its body. It may not hold many surprises, but it’s an entertaining trip as we connect the inevitable dots.

Zellweger plays a corporate climber assigned to oversee massive layoffs at a remote Minnesota dairy plant. Absolutely everyone in New Ulm (“The Most German Town in the USA”) talks like Police Chief Marge Gunderson from “Fargo,” and is just as nice and neighborly and cloying as can be. There’s a hunky fireman for her to butt heads with and then fall for, and the appropriate cockles are warmed as she realizes that small-town folk are just plain better than city slickers.

A lot going on there. You’ve got the accents and setting from “Fargo,” the band of colorful yokels from “Doc Hollywood” who seem ridiculous and then wonderful, and the love/hate relationship from … well, just about every romcom ever made.

There’s also a taste of the neurotic heroine of “Bridget Jones,” which isn’t surprising since Zellwegger was Bridget Jones, and director Jonas Elmer’s most notable credit is 2005’s “Nynne,” which the Internet Movie Database describes as “the Danish ‘Bridget Jones.’” I also detected some of the sensibility of “Sweet Home Alabama,” which was penned by co-screenwriter C. Jay Cox (Ken Rance is the other half of the team).

But the movie “New in Town” most reminded me of was “Other People’s Money,” a little-remembered dark comedy from 1991 that also arrived during a bad economic downturn. This new film strikes a timely chord with its talk of layoffs and liquidations and the greedy golems who sit in corporate headquarters and view the livelihoods of their far-flung employees as line items waiting to be written off.

When Lucy Hill (Zellwegger) first meets the factory workers at Munck Foods and starts talking about innovation and synergy and a whole bunch of other buzzword blather, and the crotchety old foreman (the inestimable J.K. Simmons) interrupts and says they just want to know how many of them are going to lose their jobs, it’s a cheer-out-loud moment.

Of course, Lucy soon drops her tough-girl pose. At first put off by the nosy way her secretary (Siobhan Fallon) ingratiates herself into Lucy’s personal life, before long she’s lapping up the friendly vibes like the tapioca the secretary cooks by the bucketful.

For a romantic comedy, the romance is probably the least successful thing about the movie. Zellweger and Harry Connick Jr. share a few nice scenes together, like the one where he takes her hunting and she gets stuck in her overalls trying to pee and inadvertently pulls a Dick Cheney on her would-be beaux. But these bits end up being less than the sum of their parts, so her fateful decision at the end lacks emotional weight.

“New in Town” may not win any awards for originality. But even if it’s not very new, it milks the familiar routines like an old, expert hand.

Three stars out of four

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