By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published February 9, 2009
“New in Town,” a new film directed by Jonas Elmer, is not a movie that sets out to change the world. What it offers, however, is nothing less than a happily-ever-after story, some appealing characters and more than its share of genuinely funny moments.
The story of “New in Town” has been told before. A big city woman, Lucy Hill, who is devoted to her career, gets sent to a small town to oversee a factory downsizing. At first she is uncomfortable and confrontational, but eventually she becomes charmed with the local lifestyle and especially with the local nice single guy—all of which, of course, makes it harder than she expected to follow through with her corporate mission.
Although the plot may be predictable, the movie remains fresh because of the genuine good humor of the characters and some very funny fish-out-of-water situations. Much of the comedy stems from Lucy’s transition from warm and sunny Miami to the frigid temperatures of New Ulm, Minn. As Lucy, Renee Zellweger downplays some her normally annoying quirks and shows an unexpected gift for physical comedy as she tackles the unexpected. As Lucy’s love interest, union rep Ted Mitchell, Harry Connick Jr. is a combination of easy charm and macho bluster. The pair get off on the wrong foot, but of course they learn to see behind each other’s façades and to appreciate each other’s better qualities.
The movie’s secondary characters threaten to steal the show. Admittedly these characters at times take the Midwestern twang and the small-town eccentricity to an extreme, but they are nonetheless appealing. In particular, veteran character actors J.K. Simmons as plant foreman Stu Kopenhafer and Siobhan Fallon Hogan as Lucy’s secretary, Blanche Gunderson, add a good bit of humor to the film. Kopenhafer’s gruff exterior never quite hides a heart of gold, but his approval is Lucy’s final and most difficult test. Blanche serves as Lucy’s guide and mentor to small town life, and the pair strike up an unlikely but oddly believable friendship.
One of the most appealing elements of the film is that it does not demean the small town characters, nor does it imply that Lucy must fundamentally change to fit into life in New Ulm. When Lucy first arrives in Minnesota, she is taken aback by the immediate friendliness of the town’s inhabitants. When Blanche asks her, in their very first conversation, whether she has found Jesus, Lucy reacts with a joke and nervous laughter. Yet she never makes fun of Blanche or her beliefs. When Blanche invites her to dinner and tries to set her up with Ted, Lucy is uncomfortable at first and later angry (misguidedly, as it turns out), but never dismissive.
In turn, Lucy does not have to compromise to fit into the life of the town. True, she learns to see her new neighbors more clearly as individuals, and her heart opens as she learns about their hopes and dreams, but she does not dumb down or abandon her own ambitions. At the end, her intelligence and her resourcefulness help her new friends and save the town’s livelihood.
Religion does not play an overt role in the film. Apart from the awkward question posed by Blanche, it is never specifically mentioned. Yet one of the loveliest scenes is set during the Christmas season, as Lucy joins the other townspeople in caroling around the community Christmas tree. It is clear that the season is celebrated in faith and that it is very important to the inhabitants of New Ulm.
The film also has some positive lessons about keeping one’s word and standing up for one’s values. Lucy learns that honesty is the best policy, and everyone concerned learns to open their hearts and accept friendship in the unlikeliest circumstance.
“New in Town” is delightful family entertainment. The film is not deep; it is, in fact, light as a feather. However, for those looking for a few laughs and a feel-good diversion on a cold winter’s day, this is the movie for you.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.