With millions thrown out of work and millions more hovering on unemployment’s brink, the time is right for some films about applying business ethics, real Ethics with a capital E. Our new President sternly and righteously rapped the knuckles of graspingly selfish bonus-taking executives, and we wait for the zeitgeist to change, the nation primed for the pursuit of a Greater Good than Gordon Gekko’s Greed. Two well-meaning films twenty-five years apart examine the difference one person can make when Small Town meets Big Business. Business doesn’t always have to play bad guy; in movies, corporate types can change their stripes and save the day. Lucy versus Mac. Which city slicker gets the greater good better?
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Renée Zellweger plays Lucy Hill, a high-powered Miami executive transferred to New Ulm, Minnesota, to oversee the restructuring and requisite downsizing of a manufacturing plant. Ill prepared for the cold, Lucy eventually warms to the small town’s charm. When the evil overlords at corporate headquarters order her to shut down the plant, Lucy reconsiders her life goals and scrambles to find a way to save the town. The movie is misleadingly marketed as a romantic comedy; inevitably, volunteer fireman and union rep Ted (Harry Connick, Jr.) and boss Lucy are destined to fall in love. We know this because they fight operatically when they first meet. In all movies, this repellent and unwarranted behavior signals unacknowledged love and instant attraction. (In life, this kind of hair-trigger arguing gets you uninvited to dinner parties.) But New Ulm is a place where nothing much else goes on. The movie is not much of a romance however; it’s really about Lucy’s very steep learning curve. Initially spouting business school inanities and dressed for the kind of success staying in rural Minnesota won’t deliver, Lucy Hill comes to see the light.
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The Defending Champion
Oil billionaire Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) sends Mac (Peter Riegert) to Ferness, a remote and utterly enchanting Scottish seaside village, to secure the property rights for an oil refinery he wants to build there. Mac begins negotiations with the locals who jump at the chance to sell out for big money, hailing Mac as their savior. Writer/Director Bill Forsythe creates a magical and memorable town, populated with unforgettable, diverse and lovable denizens, their beauty and charm matched by an impeccable score by Mark Knopfler. Inhabited by actors mostly unknown to American audiences, the Ferness citizens are so affectionately drawn and intricately related that entire subplots reveal themselves in silent movie style in the backgrounds and edges of frames. Mac too grows intoxicated with the place; the pace and the undeniable beauty beguile. All the simple human kindnesses that make up every day are not lost on this Texan fish so far out of water; Mac’s singular odyssey towards enlightenment begins Alice-style; his unfortunate and sentimental roadway encounter with a rabbit does not end at all well. Other highlights include a ceilidh, a mermaid, the Northern Lights, an impossibly beautiful phone booth, and a drunken lifeswapping proposal.
A lot of the so-called humor of “New in Town”revolves around a Miami native’s gradual adjustment to winter and to the small-town values of the handful of people she meets. These values include, in no particular order: scrapbooking, tapioca, hunting, Jesus, hockey and ice-fishing. Seasons come and seasons go, and everyone talks like they took diction lessons directly from Fargo’s Marge Gunderson. New Ulm is a town untouched by time. We are supposed to laugh at bad haircuts, seventies-era wallpaper and embellished sweatshirts. And falling down. A lot of falling down. We see very little of Lucy’s Miami life; over opening credits, she jogs alone clad in a jacket and long pants, power-dresses for work, zooms her fast car through Miami traffic, and finally arrives late to an otherwise all-male board meeting. No friends, no family, no attachments.
So. Let’s figure this out. She’s a high-powered executive. She has never heard of winter? Never been skiing? No widgets on her computer to check out the wind chill factor in the place she’s moving? Perhaps I’m over-cautious by nature, but whenever I travel, I scope out the predicted weather in my destination city as well as the connecting flight cities. It’s unreasonable to think that an otherwise intelligent person would be so utterly unprepared for cold as to arrive at an airport in a tight skirt and expensive ludicrously high heels (even if they did make her legs look insanely gorgeous). And without a winter coat. Or gloves. Or scarf. Or hat. Come on. Short notice or no. Wait. Lucy Hill doesn’t own a computer. When was the last time any executive on any airline flew without an ever-present laptop or Blackberry? Her office has files. Actual manila file folders. In drawers. Corporate secrets are written in pen on documents that aren’t even photocopied. We really are in the Land That Time Forgot.
So what does Ted learn to love about Lucy? Is it her Polly Pocket size? Her easy-to-rescue helplessness? Her Norma Rae-style conversion? Her final reel epiphany? Is it just the usual romantic comedy bunk about opposites attracting? Or are all the other women in town just too homely and old for him to consider? Renée Zellweger looks absolutely amazing in the film; her face looks remarkably good too, not puffy or squinty or overly Botoxed like so many of her contemporaries, and her body is slamming. (I can’t believe I just typed that. I’m actually ashamed. But it’s true.) It’s almost impossible to believe she’s turning forty this year. Strangely though, the film is a bit murky and dark, and Zellweger’s star-powered smile wattage is kept uncharacteristically on the down-low.
Director Jonas Elmer is Danish; this is his first English language film, and there is something essentially foreign-feeling about the enterprise. (Denmark, in case you’re interested, boasts a free market capitalist economy and the world’s highest level of income equality, ranked “the happiest place in the world,” based on standards of health, welfare, and education.) While the script hits most (if not all) the typical romantic comedy notes, there’s a seriously Socialist heart beating underneath all the froth and frivolity. The tonal shifts are subtle and not particularly graceful, and the resulting awkwardness and serious purpose muffles the high spirits somewhat. One particularly odd sequence has the entire town marching towards a giant Christmas tree while caroling about Jesus; the Lord’s name is thrown about in casual conversation more than usual RomCom convention would lead one to expect.
We don’t learn much about the New Ulm locals; a few have names and idiosyncrasies, but most remain undifferentiated extras. Siobhan Fallon Hogan plays a significant part in the wildly predictable plot; the only more obvious conclusion to the tale would involve a product called Scrapioca. (This joke will only work for those who sit through the film. I include it here as a sort of bonus, a Cracker Jack prize at the bottom of the box because there’s not much else in store for you, surprise-wise.) While we spend considerable time in her home and she’s hardly shy, still, at movie’s end, we’re not entirely sure what makes her Blanche Gunderson tick. ( “font-size: 14px; font-family: ‘Trebuchet MS’;”>Her moniker’s a little homage to Marge, I’m guessing, or perhaps an explanation of the completely over-the-top accent.)
New Ulm is no Ferness. We feel we know plenty about all the Ferness people we see. Far richer than stereotypes, these folks come with back story and relationships and a true sense of place. Forsyth never stoops for an easy laugh; his characters are individuated and accorded great dignity and deep affection. The storytelling takes its time and so does the ever-unfolding humor. These locals are lovely; since the actors were largely unfamiliar, their anonymity helped sustain the spell. (I still remember literally jumping out of my seat when I first spied Denis Lawson, devastatingly suave jack of all trades Gordon Urquhart of “Local Hero,” on the big screen, piloting a “Star Wars” craft in several episodes of that franchise. It actually first crossed my mind that Urquhart had gotten an acting job. I was similarly thrilled and startled to see actor Christopher Rozycki, Russian song stylist and sailor Victor, playing Titus in “Truly Madly Deeply.) “Local Hero” has worked its brand of alchemy with bigger name actors as well. Having appeared in “Local Hero” exponentially multiplies my affection for everyone in it. This is some magic trick.
Burt Lancaster, then seventy years old, delivers a powerful and touching performance as the deeply eccentric billionaire; his vigor and iconic good looks had hardly faded at all. Still, the memory of his impossibly handsome youth remains so strongly etched in our consciousness that it endears him to us as if he were a member of our family. Utilizing such a huge movie star in such a pivotal supporting part pays huge dividends when it works. His stature is unquestioned; we remember him vividly even when he is offscreen. Peter Riegert is his perfect foil, youth and callowness personified. He leads an unexamined life of habit and meaningless trivia that he grows to regret; Ferness awakens new longings in him; perhaps he strives to keep the place unchanged so that he can return there.
Coming down from the corporate ivory tower into the decidedly not-mean streets of a small town makes it well nigh impossible for even the smallest of heart to act as executioner. Faces and names complicate the deed. But these two cinematic saviors do more than groove on the vibe of the small towns where they land; they save them. These are no philosopher poets, no dreamers. They’re business people. Action heroes. They don’t waste their breath communicating how morally bankrupt and wrong it would be to force towns out of work and home. Faced with moral quandary and conscience, they each come up with a Big Idea, the kind of big idea that wins over even the stoniest corporate bigwigs unblessed with the epiphanies of their underlings. These fish out of water work hard once they recognize the greater good, then redeem themselves while they save the towns they came to plunder.
There are lessons here to be learned, especially hard ones for a country built by robber barons and unbridled competition. It might be high time to sound the death knell for unregulated capitalism; it is well past time that employers take responsibility for their employees and not only their investors and stockholders. The world is a very small place, and we are here a relatively short time. Step out of the tower, dip your foot in a different stream, walk a mile in another’s shoes. Join the family of man. Those fellow travelers less worldly, not so well-dressed or savvy might know things you’ve forgotten or never taken the time to notice.
Both films purport to teach this timely lesson. Which does it better? It’s no contest. I admit to having stacked the deck more than a bit on this one. “Local Hero” is one of my very favorite films; it’s perfect, a small jewel that stands up well to a quarter century of frequent repeat viewings. While “Local Hero” is indeed brilliant and timely, it’s not playing at your neighborhood multiplex. If you’ve never seen it, you have a huge and wondrous surprise in store, and if you have, this seems an excellent moment to watch it again. Meanwhile, there are worse things to do with your time and your money than supporting “New in Town.” Its heart is in the right place; its head has some catching up to do.