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Town values

Movies | The only surprise in New in Town is how respectfully it treats Christian faith

Issue: "The Obama era," Feb. 14, 2009

New in Town stars Renee Zellweger as Lucy, an up-and-coming executive in a large corporation. She's sent from Florida to frigid Minnesota to run-and downsize-a factory. Lucy, although smart enough to be on the fast track to VP, has apparently never heard of Minnesota. She shows up in winter without a parka, gloves, hat, or boots, wearing four-inch heels and a summer coat. In the heartland, she finds a hearty people, led by Blanche Gunderson (Siobhan Fallon Hogan). Lucy treats Blanche and the other small-towners with condescending disdain, especially Ted (Harry Connick Jr.), the resident union rep and all-around hunk.

The film offers few surprises. As Lucy falls for both the town and Ted, the factory and her romance are threatened by greedy fat cats at corporate, and the movie marches on to 
an entirely predictable end.

There is one element, however, not often seen in Hollywood. The salt-of-the-earth Minnesotans, and their faith, are treated with respect and honor. They speak with hard vowels, tend to scrapbook, and interject Jesus into everyday conversation, but simple people like Blanche and Stu Kopenhafer (J.K. Simmons) have something urban Lucy doesn't. The sincerity, community, faith, and warmth of the small town are things she never found in the big city.

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In addition, Ted, a widower, shares a sweet and charming relationship with his 13-year-old daughter, a mix of pride, love, and respect that can also be rare on the silver screen. The film was originally rated PG-13 for language, but Lionsgate removed offensive words in response to criticism that rough language would turn off the family-oriented audience most likely to resonate with the movie's themes. It is now rated PG and is largely innocent. However, there is a visual gag involving the effects of cold on the female anatomy. The film, although funny in parts, never quite catches, which is a shame, considering the beautiful portrayal of everyday Americans.

Hogan's hope

By Rebecca Cusey

Siobhan Fallon Hogan plays Blanche, a frumpy, kind, faith-filled, scrapbooking matron of Minnesota. Hogan, a Saturday Night Live alum whose credits include Forrest Gump, Charlotte's Web, and Holes, as well as TV shows such as Seinfeld and 30 Rock, is a devout Catholic with three children. We sat down in a Beverly Hills hotel to discuss her career and faith.

"I have almost tanked my career so many times," said Hogan, "by saying no to things that don't go along with what I believe. I'm always praying for something that would be something I could be really proud of and be an example to my children and also use the gift that God gave me, to use it properly. When I got the script, I kept reading, thinking, 'Surely on the next page, they'll make fun of Jesus or the Christian woman would be made a fool of.' And it didn't happen. I felt like, 'Am I in the United States that I know? The Hollywood that I know?' I was thrilled about it. I feel like she talks about Jesus and she doesn't mock Jesus in any way. And she's not a dope."

Despite her choosiness in selecting roles, Hogan has been increasingly in demand in Hollywood. "I swear," she said, "it's all because of faith and little miracles. Because there've been times I've turned down stuff that I have no business turning down."

Perhaps her riotous sense of humor helps pave the way for connection with others. "I think people are really free to talk about the opposite of faith. They're really free to talk about really shocking things. And they think you agree. I think humor, people aren't as offended by it or taken aback, but they're afraid of [faith] for some reason if you're too serious or it challenges them too much. Humor is the segue in, and then you can be really serious about it."

Ultimately, Hogan says, "I want to do something I can be proud of. Because I figure what I'm doing is not what it's all about. What's after is what it's all about."

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