Monday, July 6, 2009

New in Town

New in Town is the first American film from Dutch director Jonas Elmer, and it may very well be his last. Perhaps he was just too eager to make a good impression; that might explain why he chose a story that crammed as many empty Hollywood types into one film. New in Town is, at various moments, a romantic comedy, a fish-out-of-water story, a man vs. machine celebration of the working class and a tepid drama in which the protagonist learns an important lesson about life.

That lesson may be "Never go to Minnesota," as the Land of 10,000 Lakes is portrayed as an unforgiving, frozen hellscape. It does not merely snow a lot there; it is blanketed in a never-ending series of blizzards that make Hoth look like a Caribbean resort. I do not deny that it snows frequently in the state during the winter, but I refuse to accept it as some hurricane of snow when I know full well that people choose to live there.

Into this terrifying state comes Lucy Hill (Renée Zellweger), an executive tasked with restructuring a plant in the blue collar town of New Ulm. She's a sassy city girl who's rising to the top of the corporate world, but she immediately displays a total lack of understanding concerning, well, anything at all. When she gets off the plane, she is comically unprepared for the harsh conditions outside. Yet, moments earlier, her shocked reaction at the assignment hinted that she knew a thing or two about Minnesota's climate. I guess it's just been a long time since she watched Fargo.

It hasn't been very long for writers C. Jay Cox and Ken Rance, however, as they mine the accents for comedy gold, only they don't give us interesting characters to make these accents funny like the Coens. There's even a Gunderson in town, played by Soibhan Fallon. She, as well as the other townsfolk, rally against Lucy the second she arrives and someone, surprisingly, even throws out the term "robber baron" despite this film not occurring during the Reconstruction era. (When I went to Wikipedia to check the spelling for character names and other details, I saw that the synopsis said Hill endures "a frosty reception," at which point I closed my laptop and went for a brief walk.)

Gunderson, Hill's new secretary, picks up the Miami native from the airport and the two have an awkward conversation about Jesus. You see, these people love Jesus so much that they have no qualms prying into a stranger's religious practices mere minutes after meeting them. If I lived in a place as seemingly desolate and treacherous as New Ulm, I don't think I could believe in God's love as ardently. They have a shudder-inducing exchange: "Have you found Jesus?" "I didn't know he was missing." That's a direct pull from Forrest Gump, the difference of course being that, in Gump, the mentally-challenged character made the statement.

Not that Lucy is any smarter than these Bible-thumpers. The townies look upon her as an elitist, snobbish city girl (which she is), yet she cannot ever seem to grasp the concept of sarcasm. Miami is no New York, certainly, but wouldn't she know a thing or two about verbal barbs? And why would a woman who's endured all the sexist talk and the challenges facing women in the boardroom make herself a doormat for these often chauvinist fools? Why, of all the things in the town she scoffs and turns her nose at, does the subservience and domestication of the women there not outrage her?

Before long, Lucy falls for Ted (Harry Connick Jr.), the obligatory stud in the midst of missing teeth and pot bellies. Isn't it always strange how these lookers never leave town because they're just as old-fashioned as the other residents, yet they never deign to sleep with the plain women? At best, they did marry the pretty one and were later widowed, as is the case here. The pair initially loathe one another, but slowly bond over such activities as hunting and helping Ted's daughter prepare for the box social or whatever it is a 13-year-old goes to. As Ted accepts her, so too do the townspeople, until Lucy's company announces its plans to shutter the plant.

All hope seems lost, until one of the denizens comes up with the answer: tapioca! OK, let's just stop for a moment. Does everyone remember tapioca pudding? As I recall, tapioca was the flavor of pudding everyone always mistook for vanilla, leading to untold anguish in the 2-5 age group. I have never met anyone who likes tapioca, with the exceptions of those suffering from dementia. If someone ever remakes Logan's Run, you can use tapioca as the method to determine when a person has reached the age limit: if they express a fondness for it, call the Sandmen. I may be venturing into spoiler territory now, but I just don't care. I refuse to believe that tapioca can be a spoiler, anyway; it's ridiculous. The only thing that tapioca can spoil is an appetite.

But I digress. Perhaps it's appropriate after all that tapioca, made from a tasteless, odorless plant, is the linchpin of this bland, tired romantic comedy. It's impossible to determine which performance is the worst; the only actor who emerges unscathed is J.K. Simmons, by virtue of the fact that he's unrecognizable as the lumbering Stu. New in Town follows rom-com tropes to the letter, but it never even manages to settle into that unmemorable groove that defines most of the genre's output. No, this is actively awful, replete with casual sexism, unfunny one-liners and physical comedy, and characters so undefined to call them two-dimensional would seem polite. Renée Zellweger is too good for this movie, as are Connick, Fallon and Simmons. Hell, the extras are too good for this movie.

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