'New in Town'

Empty

It might have undergone several title changes on its way to the Lionsgate release schedule, including "Chilled in Miami" and "Moonlighting in Minnesota," but whatever its name, "New in Town" is strictly old hat — and a poorly assembled hat at that.

An unsatisfying pairing of the usually likable Renee Zellweger and Harry Connick Jr., this forced first English-language feature by Danish director Jonas Elmer ("Nynne") feels off from the first frame and only veers further off the comedic course as it stumbles along. Expect a chilly reception from discerning audiences.

Zellweger, who has demonstrated a talent for physical comedy in "Nurse Betty" and the Bridget Jones films, can't decide what to make of Lucy Hill, a cold, fish-out-of-water Miami executive who is transferred to her company's small-town Minnesota plant with orders to downsize.

After an awkward start with the chipper denizens of New Ulm (played by frosty Winnipeg, Manitoba), Lucy learns to make the best of a bad situation with a little romantic encouragement from the factory's respected union leader, Ted (a bearded Connick).

Leading up to the inevitable tapioca pudding fight, the film, penned by Kenneth Rance and C. Jay Cox, is crammed so full of precious "you betchas" and "okey-dokes" that it plays like a dinner theater production of "Fargo."

It doesn't help that Elmer's plan of attack is to treat every would-be funny moment with the same tight close-ups and awkward pauses, no doubt anticipating peals of laughter that fail to materialize.

And try as they might to generate something resembling warmth and charm in their sketchy characters, Zellweger and Connick fail to set off persuasive sparks.

Production-wise, the harsh climate has been captured convincingly by cinematographer Chris Seager ("The Girl in the Cafe"), but all that gritty naturalism doesn't always portray its cast in the most flattering light. (partialdiff)
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