New in Town

2009-01-30 (General release)

The promotional posters spell out the hackneyed premise of New in Town. Lucy Hill (Renée Zellweger) “loves her shoes, she loves her cars, and she loves climbing the corporate ladder.” Yes, she’s materialistic and shallow. She’s also predictable: because she has to be “new” somewhere, she agrees to oversee a new factory in New Ulm, Minnesota, to secure her promotion to Vice President. She’s told to lay off 50% of the workers, but she’s okay with that. Lucy has a plan, and won’t be distracted by, say, friendship, romance or basic kindness.

This makes Lucy very different from the other women of New Ulm, who welcome her warmly. They’re all surreally sweet and homey, especially her new executive assistant Blanche (Siobhan Fallon Hill) and realtor Trudy (Frances Conroy). The men, on the other hand, led by foreman Stu (J.K. Simmons) and union rep/romantic interest Ted (Harry Connick, Jr.), resent the intruder, which only seems to encourage her. Lucy revels in her outsider status and resists changing — at least until she gives in to the life lessons New Ulm is designed to teach her.

Lucy’s predetermined acclimation is hindered by the fact that she consistently misreads her circumstances. When Blanche invites her and Ted to a family dinner, Lucy incorrectly assumes it is a romantic set up and so immediately dismisses her “date.” She mistakes Blanche and the other women for simpletons, instead of accepting their simple tastes. Apparently, she has a long history of misapprehending — as a child, she thought her father was the boss at his manufacturing plant, then learned when she was older that he was the maintenance man.

She also seems to misunderstand her own position. After a short stay in New Ulm, she decides to fight to keep the factory open rather than help to close it down. But when she cries to Blanche that the company just can’t take everyone’s livelihoods from them, it’s hard to believe (isn’t this exactly why she came to town in the first place, to take away people’s livelihoods?) “Of course they can,” Blanche corrects her. “It happens all the time.” Lucy is briefly taken aback: ah, recognition.

New in Town is fond of this formulation, which means that Lucy undergoes a series of revelations, most stemming from a reductive big city/small town dichotomy. Lucy represents the corruptions of “city life,” of course, indicated by her high heels clicking through the airport and factory hallways, or down the icy sidewalks. Similarly, Blanche and Trudy are “small town” because their speech is peppered with phrases like “Okey dokey, artichokey” and they scrapbook. Unsurprisingly, Blanche explains Lucy’s prejudice to her, but none of them gets much past a rudimentary acknowledgment of her role as a stereotype, as if such acknowledgment is enough to make her not stereotypical.

In a scene midway through New in Town, Lucy runs her car off the road and is stuck in a snowdrift. It’s a Fargo-esque image, all swirly white and barren with just the red taillights barely visible. As Lucy waits patiently for a rescuer (guess who?), we’re left to feel rather abandoned in drifts as well. Bored by clichéd characters and sneaking looks at our watches, we’re sitting and waiting to be rescued by the inevitable happy ending.

RATING 3 / 10