New in Town stars Reneé Zellweger as a hardened veteran of the corporate trenches who’s sent from HQ in Miami to New Ulm, Minnesota to lay off half the staff and re-tool the plant. It’s a romantic comedy that’s neither especially romantic nor comedic; it finishes exactly as you’d expect, with Zellweger learning a lesson from the plucky New Ulm-ites and finding love with hunky labor leader Harry Connick Jr. while, at the same time, saving the entire plant with hard work and know-how.
And I don’t feel a need to say “Spoiler alert!” about that recap anymore than you’d warn someone “You’re going to fall down!” if they jumped off a building. Romantic comedies these days seem to be made with a formula as mathematical and exacting and soulless as the equations of gravity: One fish, a new location out of aforementioned fish’s water, a suitably dignified love interest — preferably widowed — and a surrounding cast of wacky characters lining the approach to the finale like trees on the side of the fairway at a golf course, and about as naturally and subtly.
The fact is that everyone in New in Town is good. Connick’s grown into a rascally charm, and he’s more and more willing to look silly as he gets older. (I can’t quite explain it, but there’s a physical comedy bit with Connick, a bowl, a remote control and some bad timing that’s the funniest thing in New in Town.) And Zellweger’s a fine actress, but the problem is that fine actresses don’t get jobs these days unless their names rhyme with ‘Schmeryl Schmeep“; New in Town feels like an attempt to reinvent Zellweger as a comedic movie star, backed by people who think having Zellweger fall down, fall over or fall backwards is the funniest thing in the history of comedy itself.
You could argue that New in Town is the first romantic comedy of the new recession, with Zellweger’s flinty bean-counter pitted against Connick’s unshaven-but-undefeated union leader. But even as Connick feuds with Zellweger and Zellweger ticks off or fires staffers Siobahn Fallon Hogan (Baby Mama) and J.K. Simmons (Juno), we know she’s going to come around. The labor-versus-management romance plot was ancient when Doris Day and Rock Hudson ran through it in the ’50s in The Pajama Game, and it hasn’t gotten any fresher. And if you do not spot the ultimate mechanism of good fortune that saves the plant and the town and all involved coming a mile away, I’m not merely going to tell you that you need to see more movies; in this case, if you don’t see that ultimate mechanism coming, you need to see your optometrist. And have someone else drive you there.
New in Town comes close on the heels of a fascinating article in The New Yorker profiling Tim Palen, the co-president of marketing at Lionsgate, the studio that released New in Town. The article explains how Palen and his peers at the other studios are involved in cutting the trailer, testing the film, making the posters, scheduling the talk-show appearances, renaming the film and a host of other duties in the multi-million-dollar campaign to promote and sell a modern film; the article, not surprisingly, doesn’t talk much about how no one seems to be making sure Palen and his peers at other studios actually have good movies to sell and promote.
Imagine if you had access to a multi-million dollar kitchen and the world’s greatest chefs and the wisdom of the business was to make vanilla pudding, vanilla pudding, vanilla pudding — nothing with any flavor or texture for people to mull over or roll around in their mouth, just bland, beige softness for them to swallow whole over and over again. New in Town, like so many romantic comedies, is made as the equivalent of that pudding — and while I like a bit of pudding now and then, and a bit of familiarity, is it too much to ask that it be made by hand, not just hosed out like New in Town‘s tired jokes? Hunting accidents! Mistaken identity! Nervous dad! Small-town weirdoes with hearts of gold! It’s not that director Jonas Elmer and screenwriters Ken Rance and C. Jay Cox don’t know you’ve seen all this before; that’s, depressingly, what they’re banking on. New in Town is a weak, warmed-over rehash of every movie you’ve seen on an airplane in the past 10 years, and watching it, you can’t help but feel that both the audience and the actors deserve better.