Friday, February 13, 2009

All This and Norm Coleman, Too

The spotty “fish out of water” romantic comedy New in Town, directed by the Danish director Jonas Elmer, is amiable and endearing, but doesn't have the zest it needs to make it a success.

The early scenes, in which Lucy Hill (Renée Zellweger), an ambitious food-company executive in Miami, agrees to relocate to frigid New Ulm, Minnesota to oversee a factory conversion, have a nice indie-film quirkiness as Lucy experiences some icy culture shock. “Holy Mother of….!” Lucy exclaims when a frigid wind blast greets her outside the airport, an experience those of us spending winter in the frozen north can relate to.

Minnesota native Ken Rance, who wrote the screenplay with C. Jay Cox, affectionately mocks his fellow Gopher Staters, who talk in exaggerated “Fargo” accents (anyhoo, you betcha!) and enjoy ice fishing, snickerdoodles, scrapbooking and talkin’ ‘bout Jesus. Lucy’s guide to New Ulm (the movie was actually filmed in Canada) is her secretary, Blanche Gunderson (nicely played by Siobhan Fallon Hogan), who introduces her to the local union rep, Ted (Harry Connick, Jr., a better singer than actor), a widowed would-be Woody Guthrie who rails wearisomely against corporate “robber barons.”

Naturally, it’s hate at first sight between Lucy and Ted, which inevitably turns to love as the movie succumbs to the hoariest of Hollywood clichés, including an utterly improbable scheme to save the factory when the corporation decides to shut it down.

The movie has a strong beginning and a triumphant ending, but the stuff in the middle is lacking. There’s no logical reason, for example, why the New Ulmers, so boorish when Lucy meets them — swilling beer, watching football in Viking helmets and spouting small-town ignorance — would be transformed by movie’s end into wise, lovely people. Still, the movie offers a smattering of laughs, especially at such familiar things as getting a car stuck in a snowdrift, and a talented cast that includes fine character actor J.K. Simmons as the shop foreman. Zellweger, less scrunch-faced than usual but still awfully pale for a Floridian, is effective as the exec in the sky-blue power suits who gradually lets her hair down.

Now, if they could just seat Senator Al Franken....

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