New in Town, But Same Old Stories

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Rebecca Sandulak / Lions Gate

Renée Zellweger in New in Town

New in Town is about a tough corporate cookie who's been dispatched from Miami to a snowbound Minnesota town in order to downsize the workforce at a factory. Despite what you might think, it is not a reality show but rather a wish-fulfillment fantasy for our economic times: good old-fashioned American ingenuity will certainly save the day. As a bonus, someone's frosty heart is bound to be thawed in the process by a strapping Minnesowt'en.

But if New in Town represents a new wave of recession-themed romantic comedies, we're truly headed for a depression. I'm not sure who should be more appalled by it: female executives or people from Minnesota, especially the ones who don't polka or wear Viking helmets on a weekly basis. Certainly the person who should be most scared by it is Renée Zellweger's agent. (See TIME's top 10 movie performances of 2008.)

They make some kind of food at the Munck plant in New Ulm, Minn., but the camera is too distracted by its intent to build a case against Lucy (Zellweger) to ever show us precisely what. Instead, director Jonas Elmer keeps our eyes fixed at the level of supercilious Lucy's excruciatingly high heels as she minces around the factory, to hammer home the fact that she's a fish out of water. Jars of something brown go by occasionally, but it's the people who make the brown stuff who matter. And they are all Real Americans, the salt of the earth, with assorted Fargo-style accents. Mainstream moviemaking seems incapable of depicting American small-town life without populating it with walking stereotypes. Lucy's secretary, Blanche (played by the scene-stealing Siobhan Fallon), alternates among three topics: scrapbooking, Jesus and her tapioca recipe. The gruff but endearing plant foreman Stu (J.K. Simmons) would rather be ice fishing. Three quaint types (one played by Frances Conroy) are permanent fixtures at Blanche's kitchen table, where they brandish scrapbooking scissors while murmuring "You don't say."

And in keeping with romantic-comedy tradition, there is one special widower living in New Ulm. Handsome and hirsute Ted (Harry Connick Jr.) is the local union representative, part-time fireman and possessor of a pickup truck with a snowplow mounted up-front. Playgirl would present him nestled on a bearskin rug, Budweiser in hand. Since Ted represents the worker and the frozen small-town tundra, and Lucy represents the Man and despicable urban living — seriously, did Governor Sarah Palin have a hand in this script? — it's preordained that they will despise each other. For a few scenes, anyway. If only they'd introduce betting counters at the multiplex. I'd like to have been able to gamble on the chances that Ted and his plow would eventually encounter Lucy and a pesky snow bank.

Everything about the film is predictable, except for our growing discomfort with Zellweger. It is rare, and awful, to watch an Oscar winner valiantly attempt to convince us, against all evidence to the contrary, that it makes sense for her to be playing girlish and cute in a negligible comedy. She's about to turn 40, which absolutely does not mean she's no longer allowed to fall in love onscreen. But Zellweger has undeniably changed since her Bridget Jones's Diary days, and her fitness to continue in the same romantic-comedy vein as Bridget is very much in question. Her mouth always had a malleability that suited her comic needs, but now — perhaps from aging, but more likely something less natural — it's pursed, tense and mean. Even as the kind people of New Ulm work their magic softening up Lucy, the mouth stays in character as the predefrosted boss.

Hair, makeup, wardrobe and the lighting department don't do Zellweger any favors either. She's dressed in tight suits and padded bras that highlight the incongruities between her puffy face and her tiny frame, a sort of disturbing Nancy Reagan effect. The movie seems to put her on display just to toy with her, often in tight close-ups. Zellweger used to have such a distinctive, offbeat type of prettiness, but in this movie she often looks as though she's wearing a sloppily manufactured Renée Zellweger mask.

These criticisms of Zellweger's physicality are hard to write — not just as a longtime admirer of her talent, going back to 1996's The Whole Wide World, but also as a feminist. An actress of her caliber deserves better opportunities. You want women, public or private, to be allowed to age without being either shamed for it or shamed into taking bizarre steps against it: chemical, surgical or simply choosing the wrong parts. We know it can be done. At the Screen Actors Guild Awards last weekend, Meryl Streep accepted her Best Actress award wearing a simple shirt and pants, her hair pulled back in a barrette. At 59, she looked both beautiful and her age.

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