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By Film critic
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/27/2009 6:04:12 PM ET 2009-01-27T23:04:12

“New in Town” is the sort of movie that’s so painfully dull-witted and predictable that I actually spent the first 20 minutes waiting for the film to pull the rug out from under me, as though it were lulling me into a state of complacency only so it could surprise me with some shocking revelation.

But then it settled in that, no, this movie really is this stupid. It’s the kind of film that should star Jessica Simpson and then open on two screens for a long weekend before going straight to DVD. It’s the kind of film that makes you think fondly of all the laundry you could be doing. It’s the kind of film that raises more questions than it answers:

Did director Jonas Elmer (a Danish filmmaker making his U.S. debut) and screenwriters C. Jay Cox (“Sweet Home Alabama,” “Latter Days”) and Ken Rance honestly think they could get away with this cloddish and laugh-free amalgam of “Local Hero” and “Fargo”?

Did no one suggest an additional draft of the film in which the main Minnesotan character’s last name wouldn’t be “Gunderson” (the last name of Frances McDormand’s pregnant cop in “Fargo”) and the small town’s one waitress wasn’t named “Flo”? And did no one notice that Renee Zellweger and Harry Connick, Jr. as a screen couple have all the romantic appeal of a urinary tract infection?

Even an actress with some amount of charisma and wit would have found herself sunk by this screenplay, so watching Zellweger try to breathe life into this horror show is akin to listening to those tone-deaf goofballs on the “American Idol” audition episodes take a stab at Whitney Houston’s back catalog. Never for a moment did I buy Zellweger as a corporate shark from a Miami-based dairy conglomerate who gets shipped off to Minnesota to downsize the workforce at a small local factory.

While Cox and Rance make the character of Lucy Hill staggeringly vapid — she lands in Minneapolis in the dead of winter wearing a miniskirt and high heels — they don’t do much better by anyone else in the film. Lucy is greeted by a cadre of “ooh yah” locals who seem like they were found in the waste basket of the “A Prairie Home Companion” writers’ room, including a scrapbooking- and tapioca-obsessed secretary (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), a nosey realtor (Frances Conroy), and the blustery factory manager (J.K. Simmons). Let the record show that these three talented performers do their gosh-darnedest to lift these clichéd characters off the page, to little avail.

Zellweger and Connick have one of those ostensibly adorable instant-hatred meetings, which of course turns into a because-the-script-says-so romance, but their whole relationship lacks even the tiniest amount of credibility. And you can pretty much call every single plot point — She falls in love with the town! They find out she wants to close the factory down! The day is saved! — long before they all fall like dominoes.

You don’t know it, but you’ve already seen “New in Town,” mainly because there’s not a single thing in it that hasn’t been stolen from “Northern Exposure,” “Other People’s Money” and countless other movies and TV shows. Spare yourself having to see it all yet again.

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