Friday, January 30, 2009

New in Town: Quirky coupling

New in Town (2009) • View trailer for New in Town
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and much too harshly, for fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.30.09
Buy DVD: New in Town • Buy Blu-Ray: New in Town [Blu-ray]

Successful romantic comedies are a particularly delicate soufflé.

While it's crucial to have a pair of engaging stars to strike flirtatious sparks against each other, the supporting characters are equally important: They must be interesting in their own right, but not overpowering. The British perfected this recipe years ago, and recent hits such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love, Actually are textbook examples of romantic leads surrounded by alternately hilarious and poignant friends, neighbors and family members.
With the holidays looming, Lucy (Renée Zellweger) matter-of-factly gives her
secretary (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) a brusquely professional cash bonus ... and is
astonished when the other woman responds by gifting her with a homemade
scrapbook. Try as she might, Lucy can't put a damper on the friendly overtures
extended because she's "new in town."

American filmmakers often put all their effort into the A-story and forget to populate their stories with the engaging support staff that could have transformed a routine pas de deux into a truly charming date flick.

Director Jonas Elmer and screenwriters Kenneth Rance and C. Jay Cox, I'm happy to report, did not make that mistake with New in Town.

Renée Zellweger's breezy romp is delightful from start to finish, both because she has a solid romantic "antagonist" in Harry Connick Jr. — the formula invariably demands that the eventual lovebirds hate each other at first sight — and because she has been plunked into the middle of an environment so whimsically droll, and so wonderfully filled with memorable sidebar characters, that the premise is impossible to resist.

It's as if Zellweger's Lucy Hill has been dropped into a community filled with people belonging to the same family as Frances McDormand's Oscar-winning character from Fargo. Just listening to all these folks talk is enough to put you on the floor.

Lucy is introduced in her native environment, as a determined and aggressively materialistic woman who lives in Miami and enjoys being on the fast track in corporate America. She therefore embraces the opportunity to demonstrate her worth by accepting the challenge of supervising the reconfiguration of a production plant that her company owns in Minnesota.

Armed with enough luggage — and bulging contents — to open her own outlet of Bergdorf Goodman, Lucy resolutely hops onto a plane.

Nothing, though, could have prepared her for little New Ulm, Minn.

For openers, the weather is paralyzing, and anybody who has experienced a Minnesota winter will smile with anticipation as Lucy eyes the outside weather, mutters "Oh, how bad can it be?" and prepares to step outside the airport terminal ... still dressed in her lightweight, impeccably coordinated Miami outfit.

That aside, the quirky little community proudly displays its German and Swedish heritage, and its citizens routinely chat with the Scandinavian-style accent that McDormand delivered with such perfection in Fargo.

The New Ulm townsfolk also cherish their old-world values; the largely conservative attitudes are mirrored by recreational activities such as the local ladies' scrapbooking club.

To say that Lucy doesn't "fit" would be the grossest of understatements, but she's no less determined to get in — and then get out — with her lack of humanity intact. Needless to say, her big-city attitude just makes things worse, particularly when she starts adding names to her list of folks to be "downsized."

The New Ulmians, for their part, have seen and heard it all before; they're 21st century survivors, and they know darn well that a visit from corporate HQ means more lay-offs. They're not happy about it, and they're not about to cut Lucy any slack.

And, just to put the icing on the cake, the first person she ticks off is Ted Mitchell (Connick), the local union representative. The second person she ticks off is plant foreman Stu Kopenhafer (the wonderful J.K. Simmons, recently seen in Burn After Reading and a regular on TV's The Closer).

As for the rest of the locals, first place among equals goes to Blanche Gunderson (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), Lucy's secretary and self-appointed guide to the best way to navigate New Ulm's hilariously whimsical atmosphere. Blanche also hopes to be Lucy's new best friend — it's simply the way folks think and act in New Ulm — although our Miami newcomer regards such overtures with suspicion.

The best part is that Simmons, Hogan and all the other actors cast as New Ulmians play their parts absolutely straight ... which of course makes every conversation that much more amusing. The reflexively self-centered Lucy can't get past the notion that everybody's making fun of her — and, to a degree, they are — and she therefore comes off as a progressively more arrogant jerk.

Not to mention a naively foolish one, and the question is whether Lucy can orchestrate a thaw in her relationship with Ted before she accidentally freezes to death.

The breezily charming Connick doesn't work terribly hard at his part — it's pretty similar to his role as Leo, on TV's lamented Will and Grace — but then he doesn't need to; his laid-back charisma is the perfect counterpoint to Zellweger's easily irritated over-compensator.

The necessary breakthrough, involving Ted's teenage daughter, Bobbie (Ferron Guerreiro), also feels just right: one of the few situations where a small-town single father might be inclined to yield to a more sophisticated big-city newcomer.

Zellweger's strong suit always has been the sort of stubborn pluck that seems several sizes too large for her diminutive frame, much the way little dogs always are ready to tear into German shepherds.

It serves her well, as does the eternally vexed expression that's at such odds with the pert smile and button nose. The overall effect is irresistible, despite her character's arrogant behavior ... which, of course, is precisely the point.

Hogan is too funny for words as the overly solicitous Blanche, and Simmons still has the best deadpan slow take in Hollywood.

Granted, Rance and Cox turn their script into an unapologetic Hollywood fairy tale by the time the third act rolls around — if only real life could work out so well! — but by then the film has built up so much good will that we can forgive the unrealistic sugar-coating. Besides, it provides a great payoff to the running gag involving Blanche's super-secret recipe for tapioca pudding.

That's clever, and I'm always impressed by clever.

New in Town is arriving a wee bit early for the upcoming Valentine's Day weekend, but I'm hopeful that this little charmer will hang around long enough to become that holiday's perfect date night.

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