Women On Film – “New In Town” – Betsy Pickle reviews

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Pizza and beer aren’t the only traditions rolled out annually on Super Bowl weekend. One that’s even staler is the inevitable release of a so-called chick flick. Studios figure there’ll be femmes seeking respite from gridiron mania who’ll head to movie theaters in search of something less brutal and tedious. The trouble is, what women find at the local multiplex usually turns out to be, ahem, brutally tedious. Formula is Hollywood’s goal. Winter women’s flicks are most likely to be hackneyed and lazy, familiar and comfy.

The latest winner in this yearly sweepstakes is the ironically titled “New in Town,” a tired romantic comedy that’s about as innovative as a bar of soap. Once more, with little feeling, it’s “city slicker finds self and romance in Podunkville” with a subplot that scolds big business for putting small-town America out of work. The film stars Renee Zellweger–who seems to be aiming for the same purgatory that has engulfed Sandra Bullock and Meg Ryan–and Harry Connick Jr., the one-size-fits-all cutie-patootie singer-actor from New Orleans. According to the current pop-cultural read, disliking either of them is akin to hating puppies or kittens, but each viewer should feel free to go with his/her gut.

Zellweger plays Lucy, a corporate ladder-climber who temporarily leaves her sleek, sunny Miami condo to oversee re-engineering and downsizing at her company’s food-processing factory in New Ulm, Minn. Lucy arrives in Minnesota in high heels, a short skirt and a sophisticated but hardly weather-wise jacket. It’s a sign of how stupid director Jonas Elmer and screenwriters Ken Rance and C. Jay Cox think viewers are that they have Lucy refuse to don boots, pants and a parka for several days. The tech-savvy Lucy surely would have checked www.weather.com on her BlackBerry and ordered cold-weather gear from L.L. Bean (or more likely Burberry) before she left Miami.

Lucy drives her rental car from the airport straight to snow-covered downtown New Ulm to rendezvous with her executive assistant, Blanche Gunderson (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), whose name is supposed to call to mind marvelous Marge Gunderson of “Fargo.” Blanche and Marge are sisters by accent, if not ability, though Blanche is more capable than Lucy realizes. Lucy is condescending – chilly, in fact – to Blanche and real-estate agent Trudy Van Uuden (Frances Conroy), who’ve conspired to find Lucy a place to live.

Blanche is fond of “scrapping” (scrapbooking) and cooking (tapioca pudding is her specialty, we’re told ad nauseam). She also indulges in matchmaking, which doesn’t go over well when she introduces Lucy to Ted (Connick) at a disastrous welcome-to-town dinner party. Blanche neglects to mention that Ted is the regional union rep, a detail that Lucy discovers the following morning at the factory. It takes no imagination to see that the friction will lead to more friendly emotions.

Budding romance is interspersed with a relentless series of fish-out-of-water jokes, most of which lean heavily on Minnesota stereotypes, and old-school pratfalls, throwbacks to Zellweger’s “Bridget Jones” days that seem cumbersome in this setting. Crusty plant foreman Stu (J.K. Simmons), wisely wary of Lucy, gets the best of her a few times before she shows she’s not into games.

The lighting and makeup do nothing for Zellweger, especially in the early scenes; her face looks as though it’s having an allergic reaction to the script. It’s her hairdresser who deserves credit for most of the star’s acting. Her chic, carefully highlighted long bob marking her as an ambitious career woman transforms into a softer, scruffier do as Lucy lets the relaxed vibe of New Ulm get to her.

Connick plays his usual charming self, but the movie takes him through ridiculous hoops: from uncouth to uptight to unbending to unable-to-bend (the by-product of one rare truly funny scene). He should win an award for putting up with it. However, the one who deserves the most medals is Hogan. Blanche is saddled with one quirk after another in what feels like – and eventually is – an effort to create a to-do list of ways that Lucy can prove to be offensive and insensitive.

Lucy’s journey toward enlightenment and caring about the town includes a literal makeover, though not for her. Rance and Cox follow the playbook carefully. Just to make sure that male viewers don’t feel left out by the female-bonding shenanigans, the writers throw in some scenes involving football, hunting and ice fishing.

This plot formula can be done well (“Doc Hollywood,” “Cars”), but there’s little evidence that anyone tried here. Director Elmer apparently got the job because he made a film described as the “Danish Bridget Jones.” Perhaps the language barrier prevented him from recognizing the lameness of the “New in Town” script.

Some Christmastime scenes suggest that the film originally was scheduled to be released in November or December, but the marketing team probably realized this turkey wouldn’t make much of a gift for the studio or audiences. It may provide a weak alternative to football festivities this weekend, but it will melt into theatrical oblivion within days – before becoming a holiday staple on Lifetime.

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Betsy Pickle

Betsy Pickle is a freelance film critic and journalist. She was the film critic at the Knoxville News Sentinel from May 1985 to November 2008. A Knoxville native, she graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.S. in communications. In 1992, Betsy co-founded the Southeastern Film Critics Association, a group that has grown to more than 40 members in nine states. She served as SEFCA's president 2001-2004. She is a past member of the advisory council of the Tennessee Film, Entertainment and Music Commission and has served as a judge at the Nashville Film Festival, the Asheville Film Festival and the late and lamented Valleyfest Film Festival. Her reviews and features have appeared in newspapers from Atlanta to Anchorage and Stuart, Fla., to Sacramento, Calif.