Full disclosure: for those who do not know, I must mention that I am an ex-patriot of what some people affectionately call a “flyover state”. It’s a little place called Toledo, Ohio, the proud home of the Mud Hens, P.J. O’Rourke, Klinger from “M*A*S*H”, Tony Packo’s hot dogs, Katie Holmes, and, of course, Joe the Plumber.
Thus, it is always intriguing for me to watch Hollywood’s take on Middle America. Probably one of the best is “Fargo,” the Coen brothers’ noir set in North Dakota, and starring the wonderful Frances McDormand.
Not so great is the new film “New in Town”, which attempts to channel “Fargo” as a romantic comedy. They get the accents right. That’s about it.
In the right hands, this actually could have been a decent film. Lucy (Renee Zellweger) is on the fast-track to becoming an executive at her company. She’s entrusted with going to the company’s Minnesota plant to mechanize it, eliminating most of the workers in the process. She goes, and of course learns to value the American worker while falling in love with a cute Union rep named Ted in the process (Harry Connick, Jr.) It could have been a quick and fun fish-out-of-water tale, with real questions about feminism and class.
Instead it’s an abrasive and unpleasant treatise on the joys of being blue collar; the film version of a “You know you’re from the Midwest if…” skit by Jeff Foxworthy.
Directed by: Jonas Elmer
Written by: Ken Rance and C. Jay Cox
Starring: Renee Zellweger, Harry Connick, Jr., Siobhan Fallon Hogan
Running time: 96 min.
Seen at: AMC Loews Boston Common
To be fair, there are occasional glimmers of what it’s really like to live in a small town in Middle America. All the men hang out at the VFW Hall, which has fish fries on Friday. After learning that Lucy almost died after plowing into a snowdrift, the ladies of the town make her a quilt with their phone numbers stitched in the squares. All gifts are homemade and/or edible. They are intimately acquainted with ways of keeping yourself warm (there’s a hilarious description in the beginning of the various heating accouterments in Lucy’s rental.) And of course, there is the ultimate blessing and curse of living in a small town- everyone knows your business. There is genuine sweetness in these scenes, “aww shucks” moments that are not entirely manufactured. And Zellweger is best when she simply seems befuddled, and even a little detached, from the kindness being heaped upon her. She’s not used to people paying so much attention to her well-being.
But for a film about the joyous, kind, resourceful people of Middle America that make our country great, it sure does take a lot of time to make fun of them. And not in the affectionate way either. These people are not just provincial; they are actively stupid and naive. The film infantilizes them, and depicts them as overly-religious and uneducated. The first person to meet Lucy upon her arrival invites her home for meatloaf and then asks her if she’s found Jesus. When Lucy talks about the museums, nightlife, and culture available in Miami, everyone looks at her with the blank stare of cows chewing cud. And, after giving us an hour of raging stereotypes of “normal Americans” the film has the temerity to chide the audience for being cynical and dismissive. “You think that because we talk funny…and introduce Jesus into normal conversation, that means we don’t matter,” says Blanche Gunderson (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), Lucy’s assistant. How dare the audience patronize mid-Western people, just because the entire movie is about how quirky and childlike they are?
The chemistry between Zellweger and Connick, Jr. is a sad, hollow representation of the joyous fire between Zellwegger and Colin Firth in “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” no matter what the film trailers say. It’s not really their fault; Bridget Jones was a wonderful character because she was a real person: she was kind of chubby and awkward in her bearing, had a wide lazy streak and drank more than she should. Her romance with the straight-laced Mr. Darcy was satisfying because she didn’t need to change anything inherent about herself. Lucy, on the other hand, is simply tired rendition: the single, workaholic dragon lady and lipstick feminist who just needs a good man to tamp down that pesky Type A personality. Lucy’s romance with Ted isn’t satisfying; it’s just expected.