Help, My Face Is Frozen!

Renée Zellweger in the romantic comedy New in Town.

Renée Zellweger and Siobhan Fallon in New in Town 

Quick: Think about Renée Zellweger’s erect nipples! Not in the mood, you say? Seems a bit early in the day to have that image foisted upon you? Well, not 10 minutes into the new romantic comedy New in Town (Lionsgate), the director, Jonas Elmer, demands that you not only ponder said image for a full minute and a half but laugh at it repeatedly. Chortling at Zellweger’s nips, embarrassingly visible beneath her sweater in the Minnesota chill, is just one of many burdensome tasks required of the viewer of this fish-out-of-water love story. The toughest of all: caring about any of the characters in this smug, check-off-the-boxes comedy.

Lucy Hill (Zellweger) is a movie career woman of a familiar type. Like Diane Keaton in Baby Boom or Tina Fey in Baby Mama, she lives in a posh but sterile urban apartment, travels with too much designer luggage, condescends to rural dwellers, and has no time to slow down and pay attention to what really matters (in those movies, babies; here, tapioca). Lucy is dispatched from her home base of Miami to New Ulm, Minn., to “streamline” (read: downsize) a food-processing plant. Her first night there, after enduring the nipple mishap, she’s fixed up with the local union rep, Ted (Harry Connick Jr.)—a disastrous encounter that ends in an exchange of insults about “beer-drinking truck guys” and uppity city women. Brittle snob meets sanctimonious rube: I smell romance!

Maybe it’s just my native Zellweger animosity speaking, but I don’t know when there’s been a romantic-comedy heroine as relentlessly unpleasant as Lucy Hill. Baby Boom and its formulaic offspring may have been retrograde, arguably anti-feminist comedies, but at least they featured women who were struggling to balance career success with human relationships. Lucy Hill is Type A, as in asshole; she picks her high-heeled way through the icy streets of New Ulm as if walking in excrement and treats her secretary, the provincial but kindhearted Blanche Gunderson (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), with such horrific snobbery that it’s hard to accept the plot convention by which they eventually become friends. When Lucy’s car gets trapped in a snowbank on a remote farm road and Ted happens along to dig her out—thereby saving her from potential death by hypothermia—her first response is not, “Oh my God, thank you,” but “Watch the hands, buster.” Why is this woman worth saving from the snow, much less building a movie around?

There’s one scene in which Zellweger, softened by firelight and given a rare scrap of humanizing dialogue, summons some of the squinty charm that she brought to Jerry Maguire and the Bridget Jones movies. (I won’t speculate on the degree to which her face has since been immobilized by something other than the Minnesota cold.) And Connick Jr. isn’t without appeal, even if his ultracasual, “Am I on camera?” manner blends strangely with Zellweger’s taut artifice.

The residents of the Gopher State should mount a class-action lawsuit against Lionsgate Pictures for making them look like a bunch of holiday-sweater-wearing, snickerdoodle-baking dopes. Still, what few surprises there are here come from the supporting cast, especially J.K. Simmons, looking uncharacteristically working-class (and uncharacteristically large) as the plant’s plain-spoken foreman.

One thing I’ll say for New in Town, lest I come off as ungraciously as Lucy Hill herself: The movie does establish a vivid sense of place, with the countryside near Winnipeg, Manitoba, standing in for the barren Minnesota landscape. When Lucy gets stuck in that snowbank, the frigid expanse that surrounds her looks genuinely threatening, and the town’s main street, its paneled diners, and VFW halls, seem unidealized and real. This is exactly the kind of one-company town that has been devastated by the recession, which makes it all the more insulting that this fictional plant’s woes are healed by having the boss lady and the union leader playfully spray each other with tapioca on the production floor. For many Americans, the only believable part of New in Town may be its ominous premise: There’s a rich jerk in town, and she’s come to take away your job.

Slate V: What the critics think about New in Town and other new releases