Fish Out of (Frozen) Water: Renée Zellweger as the anti-Norma Rae

Jan 28, 2009 at 4:00 am

She's too thin. She's a bobblehead. Her forehead doesn't move. Where has that Jerry Maguire girl gone, the one we once knew and loved? Did the Oscar from Cold Mountain ruin her forever? Or is Kenny Chesney to blame?

It's not easy being America's Sweetheart. Nor any easier being Lucy Hill (Renée Zellweger), who's unmarried, pushing 40, personal-trainer-toned, living in a fabulous ocean-view, sun-washed Miami condo and working as a Jag-driving executive at an international food conglomerate. In this new star vehicle, Munck Foods and Hollywood are pretty much the same thing — profitable assembly lines that crush and package the soul. And we filmgoers are like the 13,000 inhabitants of rural New Ulm, Minnesota, where yuppie Zellweger is dispatched to close down the local factory and primary employer: We want to embrace her but are suspicious.

New in Town, like the products of Munck Foods, is a market-tested commodity, a formula picture recently recut from PG-13 to PG for wider appeal. Red-state-meets-blue, urban-sophisticate-out-of-water, country-mouse-city-mouse — you've seen this story a dozen times before. Still, you could do a lot worse in identifying the common economic anxieties that now link Middle America and Rodeo Drive.

Lucy has no personal back-story or identifying characteristics other than her Bettie Page-height boardroom fetish heels. She's Mitt Romney in a mini, and the business of New in Town is to soften her MBA-hardened heart. Rival to Lucy's downsizing mandate is union rep Ted (an unconvincingly hirsute Harry Connick Jr.), who could only be considered a hunk in a very, very small town. At first, he's like Michael Moore after gastric bypass surgery, excoriating the Reaganite Lucy for threatening overtime rules and safety regulations. Though inescapably a rom-com, New in Town is more grounded in economic reality than it strictly needs to be. New Ulm is dying, and Lucy needs a hit product. Therein, their interests converge.

Should there be a Northern Exposure-style TV spinoff of the movie, the first talent signed must be Siobhan Fallon Hogan, who here plays Lucy's churchgoing, scrapbooking, tapioca-pudding-making secretary, Blanche. An SNL cast member during the early '90s, she nails the Frances McDormand Fargo accent and wears the hideous Christmas sweaters and double-curlered hair with gusto. (The reliable J.K. Simmons, forever Juno's dad, has less to do as the plant foreman.) Hogan makes Blanche both naïve and knowing. When conscience-stricken Lucy declares, "You can't just eliminate people's livelihoods," Blanche replies, "It happens all the time."

After about 30 minutes, however, New in Town relaxes into the bland humor of a Minnesota movie-land where friendly, broad-vowelled natives go hunting, but no animals are actually shot; where, should wood chippers be seen, Steve Buscemi isn't stuffed into one. With a cheap, for-hire Danish director (Jonas Elmer) and a co-writer whose major credit is Sweet Home Alabama (C. Jay Cox, with Kenneth Rance), the movie wrong-foots Zellweger from the start. She's not enough the ice queen, like Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl, for us to accept her transition into adorable Melanie Griffith. The maple-syrup plot mainly resorts to R&B oldie montages — for a girl raised in '80s Miami? — and makeover moments to sell Lucy's character development. Zellweger deploys her signature squint and takes several pratfalls, but there's no gravity to her slapstick. The ice doesn't bruise.

Since Chicago, then the recent Leatherheads, in which George Clooney cast her as a screwball heroine amid the Great Depression (the flip side of Cinderella Man), Zellweger has become a recession pinup girl — so cute and retro-looking. She's like a department-store flapper mannequin come to life. Yet here she's caught in the frozen wasteland between Norma Rae and Sex and the City. She's not quite the champion of the working class, not quite the martini-swilling good-time girl, but carries traces of both. (Contrast that with Reese Witherspoon, our current light-comedic mistress of the out-of-water genre, who never treads the treacherous factory floor where jobs are actually lost.) We know, from movies of the '30s, that it's possible to find comedy in hard times, yet New in Town fails to pour either Champagne or tears.

"I will not get personally attached to this town or anyone in it," says Lucy. Ultimately, we feel the same way about her.