With its wintry Minnesota setting, this David-vs.-Goliath tale, with romantic overtones, is like frozen Capracorn. And like most frozen food, it’s hardly a fresh dish. “New in Town” feels as old as the hills.
Rene Zellweger plays Lucy Hill, a hard-hearted, bottom-line-is-all executive at a Miami-based company who’s manipulated into going to New Ulm, Minnesota in the dead of winter to restructure a plant to produce a heavily-promoted new Twinkie-style treat. She has to deal not only with the bone-chilling temperatures she’s totally unprepared for, but a “Fargo”-like environment she finds totally foreign. Among the people she has to contend with are Blanche (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), her oppressively chummy secretary; Stu Kopenhafer (J. K. Simmons), the rudely dismissive plant foreman; and Ted (Harry Connick, Jr.), the union rep she manages to antagonize at first glance.
There’s no surprise in where the by-the-numbers plot is headed. Our pretty heroine will eventually warm to her new surroundings and come to appreciate the homey small-town atmosphere. She’ll also fall for Ted. And when her company decides to close the plant, she’ll come to its rescue.
It’s all formulaic fish-out-of-water (or in this case into an ice-covered lake) stuff, made all the worse by the coarseness with which it’s carried off. The characters are all caricatures of the crudest sort. That’s certainly the case with Lucy, the sort of brittle woman turned softie familiar from Capra movies like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (Jean Arthur) and “Meet John Doe” (Barbara Stanwyck). And Zellweger gives her little charm, even though she’s willing to slip and slide across the ice, get her high heels stuck in the factory’s metal walkways and take an occasional tumble into the snow. But it’s also a problem with most of the locals, a bevy of eccentrics who speak with such gruesomely exaggerated accents that Minnesotans might legitimately want to sue for defamation. Hogan and Simmons are the worst offenders in this respect; they’re supposed to be lovable oddballs, of course, but their oddity exceeds any lovable qualities.
The exception is Ted, whose flatter speech is explained by the fact that he’s a transplant who brought his late wife to the Mayo Clinic for treatment. Connick plays him with a degree of restraint that’s especially welcome in this context. But the episodes that finally bring him and Lucy together—one in which he rescues her from a snowdrift, another when she gives a makeover to the daughter whom he, as a single dad, is overprotective of—are as hackneyed as everything else in the picture, including the ridiculous concluding triumph that’s dependent on the supposed popularity of a product called Zappy-O-Ca. (Tapioca is a real treat in these benighted regions, you see.)
As predictable as the plot is and as clumsy the characterizations, matters are made even worse by the choppy narrative, in which things lurch forward from point to point without the connections properly drawn. It’s as if great chunks of material were simply left out—or dropped—in the belief that the audience would take up the slack. (When one major character disappears for a long stretch, only to reappear when it’s convenient, nothing’s thought of it.) This makes for a bumpy ride indeed.
“New in Town” is no prize technically either, though one can forgive a certain measure of that on what must have been a difficult shoot in the Canadian locations that stood in for the upper Midwest. Under the circumstances Chris Seager’s cinematography is probably as good as one has a right to expect; but editor Troy Takaki would have been working in pleasanter conditions, and the lack of smoothness in the storytelling is at least partially his fault, though director Jonas Elmer surely bears the brunt of the blame.
But there’s one way in which the setting suits the movie. In spite of its aim to strike romantic sparks and warm your heart, it will leave you cold.