'New In Town': Snowbound, By Kurt Loder

Chilling with Renée Zellweger.

There's a perfect rom-com moment midway through [movie id="364449"]"New in Town"[/movie] that suggests what the movie might have been had it not turned out to be such shopworn junk. Lucy Hill ([movieperson id="168632"]Renée Zellweger[/movieperson]), a fast-track Miami business exec transferred to the snowy hicklands of rural Minnesota, is finally succumbing to the charms of Ted Mitchell (Harry Connick Jr.), a local hick she had previously scorned, on his living-room sofa. The unexpected arrival of another character sends these two into a panicky minuet of position-shifting, wine-spilling and TV-remote-clicking that, although it's just a blip, is so concisely staged, you can't help laughing. Unfortunately, throughout the rest of the picture, you mostly can.

The sofa scene, which displays real romantic chemistry between Zellweger and Connick, is preceded by a stretch of witless setup that displays little beyond gender condescension (Zellweger's character is a cool career woman warmed by the instructive glow of small-town niceness) and regional bigotry (the Minnesotans among whom Lucy finds herself stranded go in for sausage-eating contests, "Ice Day" celebrations, and such rustic verbal filigree as "anyhoo" and "don'tcha know" — and they take Jesus awfully seriously, too: in the Hollywood view, a foible too boobish to require much comment).

Lucy is employed at the Miami headquarters of a large food-processing company. She's been assigned to take over (and downsize) one of its far-flung plants, in New Ulm (an actual Minnesota town that actually appears nowhere in the movie, which was shot in Canada). We know that she's a strong, independent woman because at one point, when Ted pulls her out of a snow bank into which she's driven her car, she barks, "I don't need a man to rescue me!" (And then falls face-down into a drift.) And we know she's an idiot because she's arrived in Minnesota in the winter without a coat (although she has brought along a collection of kicky short skirts and big-city high heels). The plant's employees resent her immediately — they know she's been deputized to institute layoffs. For her part, Lucy quickly sizes them up as clueless rubes.

This being a romantic comedy, the rest of the story plays out pretty much as you'd expect, which is fine. There's a crisis, of course, and the usual allotment of heartbreak and heart-mend, plus quite a bit of tapioca, which I won't go into. But the movie's embrace of threadbare cliché — the emptiness of professional success (for women); the superior gratifications of cake-baking, scrapbooking and other folksy pursuits — is dispiriting. There's no twist on this stuff, no new take. And parts of the movie are constructed with unusual clumsiness. There's a peeing-in-the-woods scene that's dismally awkward; and for the first third of the picture, Zellweger is so badly made-up and lighted that she looks like an under-scrubbed potato. (How much of this is the fault of the Danish director, Jonas Elmer, and how much is the work of the studio, which cut the film to secure a PG rating, is hard to say.)

There's no reason this variant of the fish-out-of-water story — metropolitan snob redeemed by the humble folk he disdains — can't be the basis of a great movie: Think only of "Groundhog Day." "New in Town" has most of the ingredients for such a picture, but it hasn't bothered to make them fresh, and thus engaging. Who should be bothered to see it?

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "The Uninvited" and "Taken," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "New in Town."

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