Is it fair to unload years of accumulated frustration on a single film? Is it fair to expect a movie designed to be profitable to also be profound? Is it fair to criticize a product for being itself?
In New in Town, Renée Zellweger is a high-powered Miami executive whose higher-powered corporate heads assign her to downsize a food factory in rural Minnesota. There, she has to battle snow, small-town values and Harry Connick, Jr., the local union representative. The usual misadventures follow like so many bland protein bars off the assembly line—she wears stilettos to the plant, she drives into a snowdrift, she falls in love. Personal desire and professional ambition dovetail. Transnational financial imperatives and the livelihoods of the workforce converge. City and country meld. Alan Ladd rides off into the sunset. Okay, everything except the last bit.
New in Town has all the ingredients of a romantic comedy, but director Jonas Elmer hews too strictly to the recipe printed on the box office. Is it fair to unload years of accumulated frustration on a single film? Yes. The creative talent behind the film, including writers Ken Rance and C. Jay Cox (Sweet Home Alabama), failed to get creative, to bend the formula without breaking it.
That is what all great genre films do—they redefine the genre. The old remarriage romantic comedies of the 1940s, like His Girl Friday, had mile-a-minute repartee; New in Town has a thong joke (“No, I said wear something you can get dirty.”). When Harry Met Sally (1989) had a pair of instantly likeable leads in Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan; when Harry meets Renée in New in Town, there’s no spark, just a pair of Hollywood veterans, one looking old and tired, the other unnaturally young.
And where Ms Zellweger puts her Botox on display, there’s money to be made. Is it fair to expect a movie designed to be profitable to also be profound? Yes. Michael Clayton (2007) and Little Miss Sunshine (2006) were both highly formulaic, highly successful genre films—a thriller with an easy enemy, the corporate world, and a family dramedy with a road trip. But their characters and themes, so carefully crafted, lodged in our minds, in the space reserved for unsolvable problems and uncomfortable truths. New in Town can’t bear the thought of disappointing its audience; everything works out for everybody, no matter how improbable the odds and unlikely the choice. Disappointing, no?
Enough, you say. It is what it is—expensively-produced, cheaply consumed, disposable entertainment. Is it fair to criticize a product for being itself? No. It is not fair to fault New in Town for being a romantic comedy; it is only fair to fault it for a being a schmaltzy, sloppy, slapdash one. If only the writer/director of Michael Clayton, Tony Gilroy, tried his hand at a romantic comedy, with witty repartee, and likeable leads, like Clive Owen and Julia Roberts.
It’s called Duplicity, and it arrives new in town in a few weeks.