By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
New in Town is an interesting movie for our times, celebrating rural American values — in this case chilled in Minnesota — while sticking it to those greedy city folks. You might think Sarah Palin was called in for a script polish.
Is this a message movie? You betcha. Is it a good one? Not so much, don't ya know?
Renée Zellweger stars as Lucy Hill, a Miami executive for a foods supplier planning to convert its plant in New Ulm, Minn., into a power bar source. Lucy isn't prepared for the frigid conditions and relentlessly chipper working-class citizens she meets. New Ulm is dull enough to make you wonder what the old Ulm was like.
Director Jonas Elmer milks the fish-out-of-water elements, with Lucy underdressed or over-glammed for any occasion. We're expected to believe this type A personality wouldn't check the Weather Channel before packing. Or that she'd do anything possible to lose the factory employees' trust when expected by her bosses to succeed. Zellweger plays it too cute to be convincing as a schemer.
And honestly, New in Town isn't her movie, anyway. The real star here is Siobhan Fallon Hogan as Blanche Gunderson, Lucy's executive assistant who is used to calling herself a secretary. Blanche could be distantly related to Marge Gunderson from Fargo, a salt-of-the-earth woman whose pastimes include scrapbooking and cooking tapioca pudding.
A backward female stereotype? Maybe, except Hogan invests the role with homespun dignity and unflappable niceness, even when Lucy lies to her about the plant closing. Movies about any American culture not located on the coasts typically insult their subjects. New in Town genuinely respects the people of New Ulm. We gently laugh with them, not at them.
New in Town could use more Blanche and less Lucy, but that's a casualty of star casting. Zellweger needs the lion's share of screen time to feign Lucy's clumsy crush on the local union representative (Harry Connick Jr.) and bicker with the plant foreman (the reliable J.K. Simmons, Juno).
Leisurely paced and comically challenged, New in Town maintains interest purely on the basis of how much viewers buy into Blanche's perspective. People like Lucy need to loosen up, smell the coffee, hunt some deer and drop a line in an ice hole. Just be nice, doggone it. It's unusual that a movie sounding so much like Palin feels like a proper way to begin the age of Obama.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com.