It takes a whole lot of chutzpah, and a real lack of imagination, to make a movie like New In Town in 2009. Director Jonas Elmer uses one of comedy's oldest tropes, the fish out of water, and pairs it with story of a driven, confident career woman who really only needs a man in her life, plus an appreciation for fine home-cooking. I thought we'd left the "punish the career woman" plot behind in the 90s, but then again, a lot of things about New In Town seem stuck in another era.
For starters, the stars. Renee Zellweger and Harry Connick Jr., talented as they may have been in years past, are sadly well-suited to this kind of low-rent rom-com. Zellweger gets to be Lucy, the pinched, no-nonsense corporate type, who's dispatched to a tiny Minnesota town to oversee the company's food-processing plant, and come up with a way to fire enough people to keep it profitable. And Connick Jr. is Ted, the local union leader who, after meeting cute and feisty with Lucy at a dinner party, spars with her over the best way to run the factory and keep the town intact at the same time.
Their romance is facilitated, and sometimes hindered, by a colorful supporting cast with the most extreme Midwestern accents since Fargo. Siobhan Fallon is Blanche Gunderson, Lucy's secretary and self-appointed best friend. Frances Conroy is weirdly blank as neighbor Trudy Van Uuden, but J.K. Simmons lets off a few sparks as Stu, a worker at the plant who's the de facto leader of the employees resentful of Lucy's big-city ways.
Ken Rance and C. Jay Cox's script relies heavily on small town and snow jokes, as you'd expect, but an occasional few original laughs sneak in amongst the "you betchas" and icy pratfalls. The romance plot and the business plot eventually converge when Lucy comes up with a way to save the plant by using good old-fashioned small-town ingenuity, and the film eventually gives up on its meager attempts to pretend Lucy would struggle between leaving her antiseptic Miami life for the hearty goodness of Minnesota.
Even the most generic romantic comedy can soar when real characters emerge from the contrived set-ups, but New In Town settles for the usual stereotypes, leaving us with blank placeholder characters instead of anyone worth rooting for. Zellweger is as distracted and frantic as she was in her last attempt at comedy, Leatherheads, and clashes badly with Connick Jr.'s relaxed cool, which he uses to pass as character development. The side characters, entertaining as they may be, don't make much of the weak material given to them by the script.
In a time where the headlines are constantly full of news about layoffs and downsizing, the "let's-pull-together-and-save-this-factory" finale of New in Town feels like some weird modern fantasy, or would if the whole conclusion weren't yet another way for Lucy and Ted to come together in a climactic kiss. But truthfully, nothing in New in Town is clever enough to see beyond the mechanics of the simplistic love story, making it a dull romance not even worthy of being a guilty pleasure.