‘New in Town’

As a movie critic, I see movies so you don’t have to.

Thus, it’s my sacred duty to warn you off "New in Town" — assuming I have enough brain cells left to write this review.

To be fair, plenty of people at the preview screening I attended were chuckling at the movie’s fish-out-of-water plot line (talk about gasping for air) and tired slapstick.

Why, I don’t know, because I found "New in Town" nothing but the same old same old — only worse.

Yes, we’ve seen this movie before, multiple times, from the sublime ("Local Hero") to the ridiculous ("Sweet Home Alabama") to somewhere in between ("Baby Boom").

This time, however, there’s something truly pathetic — and more than slightly desperate — about the entire enterprise.

In that sense, "New in Town" resembles its primary setting: a small-town factory owned by a giant food corporation.

The factory, located in frost-bitten New Ulm, Minn., just isn’t producing to the satisfaction of the corporate bigwigs in sunny Miami.

So they send ambitious corporate climber Lucy Hill (Renée Zellweger) to the Great White North, where she plans to modernize — and downsize.

Teetering on stiletto heels (all the better for slipping on the ice or getting stuck on the plant catwalk, my dears), Lucy shows up oozing big-city condescension, despite the smothering welcome offered by her scrapbooking secretary, Blanche Gunderson (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), who’s a whiz at whipping up tapioca when she’s not butting into Lucy’s business.

At the plant, Lucy locks horns with down-home foreman Stu Kopenhafer (J.K. Simmons).

And she gets even testier with hunky union rep Ted Mitchell (Harry Connick Jr.), who drinks beer, drives a pickup and listens to country music.

Because Ted’s conveniently and poignantly widowed, he’d make some uptight executive a swell sweetheart. Oh, and did we mention his tomboy teen daughter, who needs some feminine advice before the big Valentine’s Day dance?

Lest you think I’m spoiling major plot points, rest assured that such a thing is impossible in a movie as overprocessed and predictable as "New in Town."

Screenwriters Kenneth Rance (a Minneapolis native) and C. Jay Cox (whose credits include — what a coincidence — "Sweet Home Alabama") drag out, then beat to death, a Whitman’s Sampler of small-town cliches. To say nothing of their characterizations, which are so flat that cardboard seems dimensional by comparison.

And just in case you can’t quite tell where "New in Town" is supposedly taking place, they also lard their dead-on-arrival dialogue with plenty of "You betchas" and "Doncha knows" to make darn tootin’ sure. (True Minnesotans may take heart from the fact that "New in Town" was filmed in Winnipeg, Canada.)

As a Dane, director Jonas Elmer definitely knows snow.

Yet, despite an award-winning European career — including the long-running sitcom "Langt fra Las Vegas (A Long Way from Las Vegas)" — Elmer’s presumed comedic flair must have gotten lost in translation.

It may have a 96-minute running time, but "New in Town" plays like a "Long Day’s Journey Into Night(mare)" marathon. Its draggy pacing provides plenty of time to contemplate the lack of punch in its punch lines and the slack timing of its slapstick.

It also gives ample opportunity to wonder what such stellar supporting players as Simmons (a welcome sight in everything from "Juno" to "Spider-Man") and "Six Feet Under’s" Frances Conroy are doing here. (Besides collecting combat pay for playing such exaggerated caricatures, that is.)

Connick’s low-key charm barely survives, but he seems (understandably) embarrassed during some of the movie’s most strained comedic sequences.

Yet he also shows an appealingly tender side during one of the movie’s few (relatively) restrained scenes, when he’s sending his daughter (newcomer Ferron Guerreiro) out on her first big date — and instructing her nervous escort on the consequences if he dares to step out of line.

It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, of course, yet Connick finds the rueful truth in the familiar comedy, which makes all the difference.

That’s more, alas, than we can say for Zellweger, who continues her descent into strained stridency.

It’s not her fault that Elmer (and cinematographer Chris Seager) shoot her in such harsh, unflattering fashion.

It is her fault, however, that she can’t convey the kind of warmth and vulnerability that made her such a winning presence in romantic comedies from "Jerry Maguire" to "Bridget Jones’ Diary."

In "New in Town," she’s still squinching her nose and working that brittle briskness for all it’s worth, but Zellweger’s just going through the motions.

As for emotions, there aren’t any.

Except for the relief I felt when the inevitable happy ending kicked in — and I could finally get out of "Town."

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at or 702-383-0272.

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