The whole time I was watching New in Town, I was wondering why Renée Zellweger didn’t fit her role. In this throwaway comedy she plays Lucy, a Miami-based executive for a food conglomerate who’s sent to Minnesota just before Thanksgiving to close down a plant that provides most of the jobs for a small town. The film gives the star many chances to do physical comedy, which she turns out to be really good at.
She’s been called on before to perform some occasional slapstick (in Down With Love and the Bridget Jones movies), but we’ve never seen her use her gymnastics and dance skills for comic purposes as much as we do in this movie, which has her welcomed to Minnesota by a blast of wind, taking a drunken fall over a porch railing, and frantically trying to unzip herself from some heavy overalls so she can pee. Danish director Jonas Elmer assists her by delicately framing the gags for maximum effect. Most of the film’s low-wattage entertainment value comes from seeing this side of Zellweger’s talent used to full effect.
And yet she’s still wrong for the part. Lucy’s supposed to be a hyper-organized Type A person who lapses into business jargon when she tries to talk to factory workers. This calls for a lead actress who can be dry and starchy, and Zellweger doesn’t fit the bill. Her voice is too soft, and her sense of fun is too close to the surface. If the filmmakers had imagined Lucy as someone who’s not a take-charge all-business person but is trying to fit into that mold because her job requires it of her, Zellweger could have made out all right.
The casting isn’t the only problem here. The chemistry goes missing in the romantic subplot between Lucy and the heartthrob of a local union rep (Harry Connick Jr.). The episode in which Lucy makes over the guy’s teenage daughter (Ferron Guerreiro) prior to her first date seems shoehorned in from a different film, and there’s a confusing bit when Lucy tries and fails to enlist the help of the fired plant foreman (J.K. Simmons), only to have him mysteriously change his mind in the very next scene. It feels like a lot of connective tissue got left on the cutting-room floor.
The movie also undercuts itself. The script constantly pokes fun at these working-class Minnesotans, with their broad accents and silly local customs, yet it then hectors us city folk in the audience that these are real people with real problems. The presence of Simmons practically forces us to compare this movie to Juno, and Jason Reitman’s comedy created much more believable working-class Minnesota characters, stylized dialogue and all. For all the potential of its “tropical fish plunged into ice water” setup, New in Town is just old shtick and not particularly inspired shtick at that.