A film review by Craig J. Koban


2009, PG-13, 96 mins.

Lucy: Renee Zellweger / Ted: Harry Connick Jr. / Blanche: Siobhan Fallon Hogan / Stu: J.K. Simmons / Trudy: Frances Conroy

Directed by Jonas Elmer / Written by Kenneth Rance and C. Jay Cox.

I began to really notice one thing while watching the new romantic comedy NEW IN TOWN: 

The startling simplicity and ingenuity of the illuminated theatre exit sign.

I have to admit, I got a fairly rotten seat for this film, which rested right below one of those large, omnipresent, and red glowing exit signs.  Beyond checking my watch feverously throughout NEW IN TOWN’s 96 minutes, I think that I developed an almost hypnotic-like trance with staring directly into the sign.  

Then, it dawned on me: this sign is one of the most wonderfully inventive and hideously ominous fixtures in any major theatre.  On a positive, you most certainly will not disrupt any other movie patrons when you need to abruptly leave the theatre for a much needed bio-break or for some extra golden-topping drenched popcorn.  On a negative, when the film you are watching is especially mediocre and agonizingly tedious, that damn sign comprised with four simple letters casts a haunting and overwhelming shadow over you:  At times during NEW IN TOWN I actually thought I heard it quietly whisper, “Craig…use me.” 

I wish I had.  NEW IN TOWN is utterly bankrupt on any level of hearty and consistent laughs, not to mention that the romance that it tries to foster in it is flaccidly developed and lacks any amount of reasonable heat and passion.  My expectations for rom-coms are decidedly very simplistic: They have to be thoroughly funny, they have to create some semblance of chemistry between the two leads that simmers as the film progresses, and it has to contain male and female leads that you grow to respond to, like and yearn on to their inevitable happily ever after conclusion before the final end credits.  Despite the fact that NEW IN TOWN has likeable and appealing actors in the leads, there is never an opportunity to fully utilize these amiable screen personas in a plot that is worthy of their caliber of talent.  There is often no more unpardonable sin than that of ruthlessly squandering good actors on screen, and NEW IN TOWN typifies this through and through.  The terms "paycheck film" is stamped over every nauseatingly dull and condescendingly silly moment of this film. 

Even more damning is the fact that NEW IN TOWN is yet another in a depressingly long list of comedies that seek easy and desperate laughs out of mocking small towns and their citizens.  Really, I mean how completely old is this stale and rudimentary formula?  You know, the one where the film is particularly abhorrent towards rural folk, so much so that they narrow-mindedly present them as intellectually vacant simpletons whose only real redeeming quality is their never-ending devotion towards one another.  What’s worse is the notion that the film also adds in another incredulously dreary and overused formula – the fist out of water angle – that has a city slicker that tries to eek out an existence with these strange and foreign townspeople, which she sees as way down on the evolutionary chain, but through a series of sanctimoniously phony events, she becomes a better person because she starts to see these offbeat and kooky people as real people that bring meaning to her life.  

My gag reflex has just gone into overdrive with just describing the essence of this film in the last paragraph. 

If shamefully indulging in every stupid and mind-numbing small town stereotype with its repellently cartoonish performances of these people were not bad enough in NEW IN TOWN, then it also tries to force feed a corporate minded story of how a big business swoops into town and threatens the livelihoods of its workers.  Call me a cynical bastard, but the last thing that many people that are trying to subside through one of the worst economic recessions of the last 70 years want to sit through is a tired and unfunny comedy about corporate layoffs and profit minded egotism.   But…wait…the film ultimately – and predictably – has a main character that initially hates the town and unavoidably comes to the town’s rescue by pooling together all of its resources to put an end to any economic devastation that the corporation will reek.  To say that NEW IN TOWN is an indefensibly corny and hopelessly naïve wish-fulfillment fantasy kind of borders on understatement.  

The always cute and bubbly Renee Zellweger really slums her way through this film playing a single and fearsomely determined career woman from Miami named Lucy Hill, who is sent by her big wig bosses in Florida to the frigid and blisteringly cold state of Minnesota (actually Manitoba, Canada in reality) so that she can optimize one factory’s output and production technology.  In short, she has to update mechanization and fire a whole bunch of people that act and talk like some rejected extras off of FARGO…but even more excruciatingly obnoxious and inane.  New Ulm, Minnesota is cold all right (one thing the film does get right is making its setting feel plausibly arctic), which sets up would-be uproarious comic moments of Zellweger’s fish-out-of-water dealing with the sub-human conditions.  One moment in particular – which has her leaving the airport upon arrival wearing nothing but a light jacket and dress, only to recoil with horror at the freezing temperatures – stinks of desperation.  I mean…this is a smart and proactive woman…certainly she is able to access a computer to check how cold it will be so that she can prepare herself for the conditions.  The script, alas, does not allow for such common sense. 

Predictably, Lucy thinks that she is on an alien planet while in New Ulm and seems disdained by the total lack of sophistication and refinement of its townspeople (this, of course, is greatly assisted by the film’s teeth grating portrayal of these people as anything but urbane).  She meets a wide assortment of colorful and goofy people, like her new secretary, Blanche Gunderson (Siobhan Fallon Hogan, who eerily channels Frances McDormand’s police officer dialect from FARGO) and a bushy bearded and tubby factory foreman named Stu Kopenhafer (played by the usually funny J.K Simmons, who is either wearing a fat suit or has gained a hell of a lot of weight for the role, which would prove really wasteful for an actor of his stature to obsess over such a marginal character).  One thing is painfully assured: good and capable actors play these parts on hyperactive caricature mode.  They rarely, if ever, feel like real people. 

However, the film does offer one persona that seems a bit more plausibly fleshed out, and that is a local union head named Ted Mitchell (Harry Connick Jr., perhaps the only actor in the film that plays his part with any amount of plausible sincerity) who has the very problematic and hostile first meeting with Lucy, and the two later have fierce verbal battles of wills.  But…don’t worry…because NEW IN TOWN hits every methodical beat in the rom-com cliché playbook over the head with the subtly of a flying hammer.  Cue the banal and flirtatious dialogue; cue individual moments where the two bond, discuss their pasts, come to relate to one another; cue the make out scene; cue the late breaking plot development that threatens their love; and cue their inordinately routine rosy third act where they reunite.  


NEW IN TOWN is the very first Hollywood mainstream film for Danish director Jonas Elmer, and its almost embarrassingly unbearable at times: this man simply has no idea about comedic pacing and timing.  One of the most annoying habits he has is to drain out all of the comic possibilities in a scene with overbearing musical cues that attempt to accentuate the offbeat vibe that the film is trying to attain (the interplay between the actors, dialogue, performances, etc. should be enough to sell the humor; we don’t need a exasperatingly maddening music track to tell us when to laugh).  A considerable number of jokes and one-liners fall flat (look at the horrible timing of an early dinner scene when one kid at the table says “Awesome”…you could hear a pin drop in the theatre).  Of course, we also get many scenes involving Lucy trying to accommodate herself to Minnesota culture, like ice fishing and peeing outdoors, which is made difficult when her zipper gets stuck.  Hoo-hoo.  The only thing to give viewers solace through all of these chilly attempts at slapstick is the balmy heating in the theatre. 

If the laughs are strained, hackneyed, and fruitless through NEW IN TOWN, then the film also largely stumbles with the paring of Zellweger and Connick, two very appealing actors who certainly are reducing themselves to this dodgy material.  Then again, it's certainly not asking a lot of any actor, regardless of talent, to make much out of a performance that has to be involved sight gags with scenes involving erect, frosty nipples and malfunctioning outer wear.  Also, the transformation of Lucy’s character from conniving and selfish corporate stooge that could care less about the townspeople to an independent woman that will save them never once feels believable.  Not only that, but the romantic allure between the two leads suffers from such a forced chemistry: Instead of the film asking us to fall for these two and wish them happiness, it simply instructs us that we must like them.  That’s a rom-com no-no.  

Capping all of this off is a final act that literally made me wish to leave the theatre and go outside to the frostbite-inducing conditions here in Saskatoon.  Without giving too much away, the manner with which NEW IN TOWN attempts to be heart-warming and upbeat when economic hardships are bearing down is pompously manufactured.  We are asked to believe that a bitch-in-heels career woman would risk her entire working career by ignoring her superiors by subsequently taking a gigantic business gamble with the town because…dog gonnit…these zany, tapioca pudding, hockey, and ice fish lovin' loons ultimately become her real family. 

Please pass me the barf bag now. 

2009 is still a relatively new movie year, but you can reliably count the generically awful NEW IN TOWN among the very worst films of the year thus far.  Jokes that are frequently attempted fail with increasing reliability, the romance in the film is neither cheerful not engaging, and the way that the film is so head-shakingly condescending not only to its small town characters, but to the audience watching the film as well, makes this film a stomach-churning endurance test of will.  Charm, joviality, and a sense of warmth and compassion are completely void in this romantic comedy, largely because NEW IN TOWN seems so painfully constructed from the better pieces of so many countless other, more enjoyable and successful, comedies.  Cheaply idiotic, overbearingly predictable, and mournfully squandering the talents of most involved, NEW IN TOWN is an unoriginal, joyless, and laugh-free bore. 

And I knew I was in trouble when a sensation of happiness came over me with every glance at the theatre exit sign. 

  H O M E