Looking like something that might have been made 50 years ago there is nothing even remotely “new” about New in Town. Lucy (Renee Zellweger) is a big-city Miami career woman sent by her company to check out a small town Minnesota plant and devise a plan to downsize it. Almost immediately she locks heads with the local Union rep Ted (Harry Connick Jr ) and further alienates the folksy employees who “all tawk like theeese doncha know” by instituting firings and a new streamlined work ethic. Things get dicey when initial conflict turns into romance (surprise!) between Ted and Lucy and her bosses inform her she must shut down the entire plant putting everyone out of work. In the right role Zellweger can be compellingly offbeat. Not here. She’s not miscast but woefully lacking any kind of chemistry with Connick Jr. who played the same kind of role on Broadway in The Pajama Game and seems to be going through the motions this time and without the songs. Particularly painful are moments when Zellweger tries way too hard to be funny giving us the “ick” factor instead. The banter between the pair could have come out of any ‘30s screwball comedy updated with all the comic panache of a low-rent sitcom. Considering the film represents Danish director Jonas Elmer’s American debut and because we think of ourselves as a kind and understanding critic we can chalk up its shortcomings to translation problems. Oh … plus a total and complete lack of invention and originality. What is supposed to be a light fluffy comedy is shot in such a dark and dreary style that it’s downright depressing. Minnesota’s tourism office should sue.
Far From Heaven pays homage to the 1950s director Douglas Sirk (Imitation of Life) by defining the women and men of that era and conjuring up characters whose squeaky-clean superficiality hides secret wants and desires simmering underneath. As the story unfolds Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) lives her life just about as perfectly as she can. A pillar of the community she takes care of her immaculate home and is devoted to her two children and husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) a thriving manager at a TV sales company. This is the outer layer of the onion--once we start to peel it back their flaws and imperfections are found. First of all Frank is harboring a deep dark secret that he can no longer suppress (he's--gasp!--gay) which sends the marriage--and Cathy--into a tailspin. She doesn't have anyone to turn to until she finds a comforting shoulder in her black gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) to whom she finds herself growing more and more attached. Heaven forbid--needless to say their taboo "friendship" is not perceived well in the community. Even her best friend (Patricia Clarkson) a seemingly forward-thinking woman is riddled with prejudice and cannot understand. Raymond offers Cathy a glimpse into how life can really be lived without fear of repercussions from society but alas the inevitability of their world comes crashing in on them and the two realize their love can never be. Music swells (no seriously it does. Again and again) and the credits roll.
Even with the film's over-the-top plot the truly excellent acting ensemble must be commended for rising above the melodrama. Moore is a vision as Cathy. With her coiffed hair crinoline skirts and matching jackets she is a perfect example of the '50s housewife. But Moore's raw talent comes through as the layers are pulled away to expose her inner strength and core. Her husband may leave her for another man she may get ostracized for loving a black man but in the end you know Cathy is going to make it. It's one of those roles actresses dream of and Moore could finally get her chance at winning Oscar gold this year. Another good Oscar bet is Quaid who could be looking at his first nomination for his performance as Frank (although he is being touted for his turn in The Rookie as well). Quaid embodies Frank with the cocky attitude prevalent in men of that era and his attempt to cure himself of his "problem" is almost too comical. It's a gutsy role for him and he rises to the occasion. Haysbert (24) does a nice job as Raymond playing the role with quiet sexuality and making it easy to see how Cathy could fall for him. Clarkson (Six Feet Under) puts in a multi-layered performance as Cathy's friend Eleonor who is all talk but ultimately is nothing but another bigot.
Far From Heaven's attempt at Sirk's nostalgia is admirable and could be considered a breath of fresh--if this is the type of film you'd enjoy. Admittedly it's a beautiful film. Director Todd Haynes (Safe) paints a lush subtle green-and-taupe suburbia but gives the visuals harsher tones when things start going astray. It's the story that seems so out of place. The reason the melodramatic films of Douglas Sirk worked is because they were made in the 1950s. Life was more hypocritical then--sweet and light on top dark and real underneath. Overblown films about shallow people trying to redeem themselves or forbidden love being revealed while the music swells and your heart beats and you wonder how on earth these people will ever make it right again were very popular back then. The fact Frank can actually embrace his homosexuality and live his life as a gay man but Cathy can't be with the man she loves because he's black and she's white somehow doesn't seem to fit in with the modern times. We've grown up (albeit not completely) and paying homage to this style seems redundant. But hey if it floats your boat more power to you.