[Screen It]

(2009) (Renée Zellweger, Harry Connick Jr.) (PG)

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Romantic Comedy: A rising corporate star from Miami travels to a small and snowy Minnesota town where she initially looks down on the place and its residents while planning to overhaul the company's factory, but has a change of heart once she gets to know everyone, including the local union rep who she starts to fall for.
Lucy Hill (RENÉE ZELLWEGER) is a rising star in the Munck Foods corporation, based in Miami. When her company takes over a processing plant in the small, snowy town of Ulm, Minnesota, she reluctantly agrees to go there and oversee its switchover to a new automated system that will result in both a new product and the downsizing of the workforce by half.

Met by her chatty personal assistant, Blanche Gunderson (SIOBHAN FALLON HOGAN), Lucy doesn't think much of their tiny town, cold weather, or folksy charm. And she certainly doesn't appreciate what she thinks is Blanche trying to fix her up with Ted Mitchell (HARRY CONNICK JR.), single dad to 13-year-old Bobbie (FERRON GUERREIRO).

Little does she know that he's actually the local union rep with whom she must negotiate regarding the plant's workers, including foreman Stu Kopenhafer (J.K. SIMMONS). He doesn't think much of her type, a feeling that runs rampant through Ulm, but that chilly relationship eventually begins to thaw.

Yet, as Lucy starts to forge friendships with the likes of Blanche and maybe even romantic feelings for Ted, she must contend with the job at hand and how that conflicts with her newfound feelings toward the town and its residents.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
In one of the many cooking related shows that permeate non-broadcast TV, there's a competition where chefs of various experience are given a short amount of time to create something fabulous from unusual and/or untraditional ingredients usually not associated with the genre of the final product.

They're then judged not only by how their dishes look and taste, but also in how creative they've been with that limited deadline and goods. If "New in Town" was the result of a similar filmmaking project, it would likely be graded as a slightly appealing dish with a handful of little flourishes that have otherwise been rendered inert by the rigid following of the usual recipe or formula in this case.

And its main ingredient would be aquatic, as in fish out of water, flavored with a lot of big city big shot gets stuck in what seems to be Podunk, America, forced to mingle with the presumably more simple local yokels. Lo and behold, not all is initially as it seems, and after some comedic clashing, the two conflicting sides learn the other isn't so bad after all.

That is, until the prefab plot determines a wrench, an "I'm missing you" montage and then a final reconciliation need to be thrown in at predetermined moments. If that sounds a bit (or a lot in this case) like "Doc Hollywood" (or its more recent computer-animated rip-off, "Cars"), well, that's because it's essentially the same movie.

Granted, the names have been changed to protect the innocent (or, more accurately, avoid lawsuits), but if you switched a big city surgeon to a corporate executive, and moved the setting from all things south to the chilly environs of the north (you betcha, it's just south east of Fargo, dontcha-know), you wouldn't be far off in half-expecting to see Michael J. Fox suddenly show up.

This time, however, the floundering fish is Renee Zellweger, still all squinty-eyed as if she's trying to be a female Clint Eastwood, or maybe it's just all of that bright snow. While she's better than in, say, "Appaloosa," she turns out to be the wrong ingredient for this dish. It doesn't help that her romantic lead co-star, Harry Connick Jr. -- once again playing the rugged but sensitive boyfriend character -- appears as if he's sleepwalking through the role when not otherwise looking quite bored, or that their chemistry together feels as fabricated as the rest of the screenplay credited to Ken Rance and C. Jay Cox.

Given more local flavor is Siobhan Fallon Hogan as a stereotypical, middle-aged Midwestern woman, chatty with the 'Soda (as in "Minn-e-soda") accent and focused on tapioca, scrapbooks and Jesus. Meanwhile, J.K. Simmons is somewhat fun -- even if he's just doing more of his usual gruff meets sarcastic shtick -- as the local plant foreman.

Most everyone else is present just as placeholders inside the paint by the numbers plot. The result is a dish that looks, smells and tastes quite familiar to other such pics that have preceded it. If generic blandness, predictability and regional stereotypes are your cup of tea (or insert your favorite food metaphor here), you might just eat this up, or at least manage to down it with gagging.

For everyone else, "New in Town" feels like nothing more than reheated leftovers with a few new garnishes thrown in as an attempt to fool consumers that it's something new that they haven't had before. But they have, and it's not only stale, but also suffers from freezer burn and existing beyond its expiration date. The film rates as a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 27, 2009 / Posted January 30, 2009

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