The Renee Zellweger romantic comedy New in Town is, by all accounts, completely formulaic — with one exception. Not every chick flick inspires two critics to call for class action lawsuits, or "nearly throw up."
According to reviews, the film, which open today, is so incredibly predictable that the commercial should have had a spoiler warning. In what is billed as "Bridget Jones moves to Fargo," Renee Zellweger plays a stiff, stuck up, and unbelievably bitchy businesswoman named Lucy Hill. This urban sophisticate from Miami is sent to a small town in Minnesota to downsize a yogurt factory and discovers that the residents are all "poorly coiffed, good-hearted half wits." (Critics are divided on whether the portrayal of the townsfolk is offensive to just Minnesotans or everyone who lives in middle America.) Lucy immediately clashes with the bearded, beer-chugging local union rep, played by Harry Connick Jr., but, as one critic notes, in these movies "all an uptight city woman really needs is the love of a good, strong, red-blooded man." Below, we take a look at the reviews and see if New In Town manages to warm even a single critic's icy heart.
The story contains the nub of a workable concept. What could be more pertinent than a yarn in which an arrogant, number-crunching city slicker regains her humanity when faced with decent, hard-working everyday folks in the provinces? But New In Town has no idea of how to play its cards. From their regional accents to their cutesy-poo vocabulary (lots of okey-dokeys), the Minnesotans whom Lucy encounters are ludicrous parodies of the characters in Fargo. You feel as if you are watching creatures more exotic than Snow White’s seven dwarfs.
To say that New in Town is the worst movie of this fledgling year is to damn it with faint praise. It may be one of the worst movies of any year. Not content to be merely inane and predictable, it is downright insulting, humorlessly deriding those who choose to live in rural America, labor in factories or have a strong Christian faith.
Where the Coen brothers' darkly droll 1996 Fargo disarmingly mocked residents in and around Minnesota, New in Town may inspire the entire state to file a class-action defamation suit. Beyond the indignities it heaps on rural Minnesotans, there's the matter of its glaring lack of humor and originality.
Zellweger is capable of being both a charming actress and a disarming one — just not here. She can't help being cute, but she's long past the point at which she can simply coast on her squinched-up pout, and her performance here is wearyingly self-conscious. It doesn't help that she's required to make the obligatory speeches about what a strong, capable woman she is, only to get her comeuppance when she finds herself stuck in a massive snowdrift and requiring rescue. And Connick, a likable and underrated actor, is better than the material warrants. He has a slightly goofy quality that dissolves some of the idiotic machismo the script has stuck him with.
Maybe it's just my native Zellweger animosity speaking, but I don't know when there's been a romantic-comedy heroine as relentlessly unpleasant as Lucy Hill. Baby Boom and its formulaic offspring may have been retrograde, arguably anti-feminist comedies, but at least they featured women who were struggling to balance career success with human relationships. Lucy Hill is Type A, as in asshole; she picks her high-heeled way through the icy streets of New Ulm as if walking in excrement and treats her secretary, the provincial but kindhearted Blanche Gunderson (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), with such horrific snobbery that it's hard to accept the plot convention by which they eventually become friends. When Lucy's car gets trapped in a snowbank on a remote farm road and Ted happens along to dig her out—thereby saving her from potential death by hypothermia—her first response is not, "Oh my God, thank you," but "Watch the hands, buster." Why is this woman worth saving from the snow, much less building a movie around?
There should be a special Oscar for good actors who still give their all when they're in bad movies. Christina Applegate and Anna Faris should both get nominated in this category every other year. Nicolas Cage would have to be named for some kind of lifetime achievement award. And then there's New in Town star Renée Zellweger, who takes an otherwise passable mainstream comedy and all but ruins it with her lack of effort. The script may not have been Cinderella Man or Cold Mountain, but audience members are still going to pay the same $10.50 ticket price to see her perform. The least she could do is not deliver her lines as if she were reading them from cue cards.
Zellweger's appeal, honed in Jerry Maguire and Bridget Jones's Diary, has worn thin over the years, and while her brittle, starved, pinch-faced persona suits the character of the tremendously unlikable corporate drone Lucy Hill, the character's inevitable transformation seems as fantastical as the latest developments from Narnia. Lucy is a Miami exec sent to New Ulm, Minn., where the townspeople are poorly coiffed, good-hearted halfwits who eat copious amounts of tapioca, like to scrapbook, ice fish or engage in other sorts of homespun fun. (Apparently there are no Xboxes or meth labs in New Ulm.) They also say ''patootie'' and ''you betcha'' repeatedly, as if auditioning for a Fargo sequel.
Aside from one particularly messy tapioca fight, there may not be one original idea in New in Town. From the gag where the big-city girl strolls into a Midwestern snowstorm wearing high heels to the confrontation she has with a small-town waitress (named Flo, natch), and the happy denouement where the crusty factory foreman pretends to have something in his eye rather than showing an actual shred of emotion, every joke in New in Town feels as if it may have been written decades ago.
New in Town was in the can before anyone outside of Alaska knew who Sarah Palin was, so it's somewhat remarkable that the supposed appeal of the characters in this film lies in the same small town folksiness (complete with accent) that made Palin an international celebrity.
What do you get when you mix A Christmas Carol with a substandard romantic comedy, an unreasonable injection of mawkishness, and characters with Palin-esque appeal? The unappetizing answer is New in Town, a movie that tries so hard to be sweet, agreeable, and uplifting that it nearly caused me to throw up.