The billboard for New in Town has it all wrong. It features Renée Zellweger as Lucy Hill, perched on a designer suitcase, legs and arms crossed, coy smile on her lips. The people of a small Northern town (in which Lucy is new) fill the background like a parka-robed choir. Such an image might give you the impression that this is Zellweger's movie. It's not.
Don't get me wrong. New in Town does center on Lucy's attempt to move up the corporate ladder by downsizing an underperforming factory. The driven Miami-based executive takes a short-term assignment to automate the facility in New Ulm, Minnesota, and faces a host of challenges, not the least of which is the climate. Lucy quickly figures out that her stilettos and cardigan are not going to cut it in Minnesota.
(The weather was apparently a challenge for the cast and crew as they filmed in Winnipeg, where they faced record-breaking temperatures of -52.6 degrees. "It was like working on the moon," says Zellweger. "Most people don't even know what 57 below feels like. You freeze to death in two minutes. Anything exposed to the elements, you lose." Cameras couldn't roll for longer than a minute; the heat they generated would fog up the lenses. Brrr!)
Things start to warm up for Lucy when she meets Ted Mitchell (Harry Connick Jr.), the local union rep and romantic foil who's keeping a skeptical eye on her. As Ted and the workers at the plant know, when someone from corporate comes to town, it always means a loss of jobs. Lucy couldn't care less about these jobs, but the friendships she forms in the town slowly shift her perspective on the bottom line. And the catalyst for this transformation isn't the romance with Ted; it's Blanche Gunderson.
Played with typical comedic aplomb by Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Blanche is the heart of New in Town. She's a tapioca-cooking, scrapbook-making, straight-talking secretary who's unflaggingly friendly, often to Lucy's chagrin. And she talks about Jesus, a nod to screenwriter Kenneth Rance's desire to capture the warm, largely Christian complexion of the real New Ulm.
Rance and Hogan are both Christians and both expressed delight at the opportunity to put a Christian on the big screen who is neither foolish nor cruel. That said, Jesus is mentioned a total of three times, and the faith of the community is demonstrated most explicitly through a Christmas carol. That these brief mentions seemed like such an opportunity for industry veterans like Rance and Hogan seems to suggest that Hollywood producers are and/or remain squeamish about embracing Christian characters in a fully orbed way. Which is a shame, because I can imagine that religion could have been a sharper, funnier, more present, source of tension and humor here.
The culture clash between Miami and New Ulm is the primary source of tension and laughs here. And as factory foreman Stu Kopenhafer, J.K. Simmons leads the pack in extending a welcome as cold as a New Ulm winter. Chief among his shenanigans is taking advantage of Lucy's city girl status by making up a Gopher Day holiday and insisting it's a traditional day off for the factory.
The workers in New Ulm might be keen on jokes, but losing their jobs is no laughing matter. And as Lucy starts to stall on her mission to automate and cut jobs, and the suits in Miami become increasingly impatient, the group comes together in a long-shot attempt to save the factory. Blanche serves up the inspiration for the new product that just might save the facility. I won't spoil the surprise, but suffice it to say, the great economic hope is an unlikely savior, but suspension of disbelief isn't a new skill needed to watch romantic comedies. And for all its predictability, it's hard not to root for the implausible and to be comforted by its triumph.
Blanche also serves as a kind of moral compass for Lucy and helps her see the New Ulm community in terms other than those that show up on a balance sheet. In this way, New in Town is a romantic comedy for our fiscal moment, when so many people are facing job insecurity and loss. This larger economic context gives a rather lighthearted romance some actual gravitas. And insofar as the workers in the movie (in addition to the romantic leads) get a happy ending, the film also provides some unexpected encouragement to viewers in this tense time, whether you have a handsome union rep or not.Discussion starters
- Lucy is accused of lying by not divulging the plans to downsize. Do you agree that this omission was a kind of lie? Why or why not?
- Blanche says the residents of New Ulm are in the habit of talking about Jesus in casual conversation? Are you in this habit? Why or why not?
- Have you ever been new in town? What was the experience like? Who helped you make the transition? How can we help others who are newto our workplace, our neighborhood, our church, etc.
- Have you or someone you know faced the possibility of losing your job lately? How have you coped with that stress?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
New in Town is rated PG for mild language. Lucy and Ted flirt and make out on the couch, but nothing escalates to the bedroom. There is mild language along the lines of "gulldarnit" throughout the movie. (Note: The film had originally been rated PG-13, but Lionsgate cut most of the offensive language to get a PG rating because they wanted a more family-friendly movie. Kudos to Lionsgate.)
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