Shamelessly formulaic “New in Town” never really recovers from its overbearingly shrill, laugh-free first act. Indeed, even after it stops trying too hard, the pic remains overly familiar and instantly forgettable as a fish-out-of-water laffer about a stressed-for-success femme workaholic who loosens up (and, of course, falls in love) during an extended commingling with small-town rubes. Current dearth of similar fare in the marketplace might help when this Lionsgate release opens as counter-programming during Super Bowl weekend. More likely, though, it will be sacked by critics and shut out as a B.O. contender.

Opening scenes are borderline painful as helmer Jonas Elmer encourages his cast — led by an unusually strident and unappealing Renee Zellweger — to underscore and italicize every emotion and motivation of the broadly drawn characters.

Lucy Hill (Zellweger), an ambitious exec for a Miami-based corporation, accepts, with extreme reluctance, an assignment to restructure a failing food-manufacturing plant in the frigid climes of small-town Minnesota (actually Winnipeg, Canada).

Her worst expectations about the isolated place and its rustic populace are quickly realized as she meets Blanche (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), her irrepressibly perky secretary; Stu (J.K. Simmons), the openly insolent and unimpressed-by-outsiders plant foreman; and Ted (Harry Connick Jr.), the hunky union rep for whom she takes an immediate dislike, natch.

It doesn’t help that Zellweger, in an unfortunate attempt to make the aud appreciate her character’s uptightness, spends many of the early scenes moving about as stiff as a flagpole in January. But it helps even less that Elmer and scripters Kenneth Rance and C. Jay Cox make caricatures of most citizens of the Minnesota burg.

When it comes time for a thaw between Lucy and the townspeople, and we’re supposed to warm to the characters as sympathetic individuals, it’s difficult to develop a rooting interest.

Moreover, said thaw is announced rather than dramatized, while the pic proceeds as a series of holiday-set episodes — Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, etc. — that invite viewers to fill in narrative gaps themselves. Supporting players try to ring easy laughs from thick Minnesotan accents, and “colorful” eccentricities, and Zellweger gamely attempts a series of slapsticky spills and stumbles.

On the plus side, Connick is relatively easy to take, if only because he underplays more often than not. He and Zellweger shine brightest in a few scenes of their characters’ seriocomic courtship, suggesting that maybe the thesps had a calming influence on each other.

Production values are mostly adequate, but the pacing is a problem. Because every development in “New in Town” is so predictable, so reminiscent of other, better romantic comedies, it actually seems longer than it is. The final 10 minutes feel unduly protracted, as filmmakers contrive to delay the inevitable happily-ever-aftering with a last-minute complication.

A troubling thought: A weekly TV sitcom spinoff is a distinct possibility.

New in Town

  • Production: A Lionsgate release of a Lionsgate and Gold Circle Films presentation of an Epidemic Pictures/Edmonds Entertainment/Safron Co. production. Produced by Paul Brooks, Darryl Taja, Tracey Edwards, Peter Safran. Executive producers, Scott Niemeyer, Norm Waitt. Co-producers, Jeff Levine, Phyllis Laing. Directed by Jonas Elmer. Screenplay, Kenneth Rance, C. Jay Cox.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Chris Seager; editor, Troy Takaki; music, John Swihart; music supervisor, Alexandra Patsavas; production designer, Daniel Davis; art director, Edward Bonutto; set designers, Gordon Peterson, Rudy Braun; costume designers, Darena Snowe, Lee Harper; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Leon Johnson; associate producer, Jonathan Shore; assistant director, Richard O'Brien-Moran; casting, Eyde Belasco, Jim Heber. Reviewed at Edwards Marq*e Theater, Houston, Jan. 21, 2009. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 96 MIN.
  • With: Lucy Hill - Renee Zellweger Ted Mitchell - Harry Connick Jr. Stu Kopenhafer - J.K. Simmons Trudy Van Uuden - Frances Conroy Blanche Gunderson - Siobhan Fallon Hogan