The timing couldn't have been better for a romantic comedy with a love-among-the-financial-ruins theme to come along. But if you're looking for a welcome mat for "New in Town," you won't find it here.
The new comedy starring Renee Zellweger and Harry Connick Jr. is flat, the romance is listless, the pacing is sluggish, and the fish-out-of-water flops -- flip-flop, flip-flop, I can hear it still.
Set in the ice-encrusted Minnesota outback where business at a small town's major employer, a yogurt plant, is souring, "New in Town" comes with a high relatability factor. After all, who can't identify with the hard economic times now that have companies shedding employees as fast as a longhaired cat in summer?
Zellweger is Lucy Hill, the fast-rising, designer-suited ex- ecutive from Miami who jets in to make the plant more "efficient" -- though in the real world, of course, most big-time corporate downsizers are white, male and patently unattractive, but that's just a minor quibble. We know right away that Lucy is out of her element in tiny New Ulm because even though she's very smart -- we see her saying important things in boardrooms filled with executives -- she shows up in the dead of a Minnesota winter wearing stilettos and a pencil skirt.
Union leader Ted, a very scruffy Harry Connick Jr. (nothing says Minnesota like unruly beards and flannel, I guess) is right there to let her know she's got a battle on her hands and it starts with him. They spar, but somehow you just know these kids are going to get together. Along the way, Lucy gets in touch with her inner small town, which means good old-fashioned American values of friendship, community and the dignity of hard work (think Sarah Palin campaign).
All of which can be absolutely charming in the right hands, as "Baby Boom" more than aptly proved in the great long-ago of 1987; at least back then when Diane Keaton left New York for Vermont, her type-A "tiger lady" had the good sense to buy a winter coat and boots, thank you Nancy Meyers.
As much as she is confounded by the ice and snow, Lucy is also confused by the warm embrace of the community women, as her execu- tive assistant and the town's most dedicated scrapbooker, Blanche Gunderson (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) scoops her up, determined to see that Lucy finds God and a boyfriend. The best moments are in the plant or around Blanche's kitchen table, the places where the film manages some level of authenticity.
But mostly it feels as if every twist and turn in "New in Town" that might take you around the corner to a brighter day is woefully squandered. Flipping back through the "Bridget Jones's Diary" textbook, there are many ways for Zellweger to fall and fall funny -- a particular sky-diving scene comes to mind -- but here the physical comedy fails. Case in point: A hunting outing Ted cooks up to help Lucy mend things with Stu, the popular plant foreman (J.K. Simmons), is clearly designed to showcase Lucy's willingness to take on any sort of humiliating stunt you hand her. But her slips and stumbles while toting a rifle (you can guess what happens) and troubles urinating (there's a long zipper scene involved) in the great outdoors are more tedious than endearing.
As for Connick, he can be a sexy jazz man whether he's playing a keyboard or an appropriately adroit costar and is best doing sardonic deadpan against the hyper-energy of, say, a Debra Messing, as he did effectively in "Will & Grace." Here again, Zellweger more than fits the bill -- she was able to goose the languor out of Hugh Grant in "Bridget" for heaven's sake. But together in "New in Town," Renee and Harry's Lucy and Ted don't generate as much heat as electric foot warmers, and old ones at that.
So what went wrong?
Just about everything. The dialogue, courtesy of screenwriters Kenneth Rance and C. Jay Cox, plods along with punch lines that have long since lost their punch (if they ever had it). There is no tension, sexual or otherwise, to be found in New Ulm, nothing remotely surprising happens and the comedy is so fleeting as to hardly qualify.
Danish director Jonas Elmer makes his English-language feature debut with the film; he's done a little feature film work in his native language, but his specialty is music videos and commer- cials. Those disciplines have spawned many fine directors, and Elmer may eventually grow into one, but he's not there yet.
As for Zellweger, who's really struggled in recent years in roles that haven't quite clicked -- "Leatherheads," "Appaloosa" and "Miss Potter," in case you were trying to remember where you might have seen her last -- one hopes she finds a way to get her mojo back, because it's definitely wrapped, sealed, frozen and shoved into the back of the freezer here.
'New in Town'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: In wide release