Welcome to Mooseport

(2004) ** Pg-13
111 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Donald Petrie. Cast: Gene Hackman, Ray Romano, Marcia Gay Harden, Maura Tierney, Christine Baranski.

Despite the presence of Oscar-winning actors Gene Hackman and Marcia Gay Harden, TV funnyman Ray Romano, and an ensemble of well-liked former stars of stage and (mostly small) screen, Welcome to Mooseport is a clunky dud coming in at an unwieldy and largely unfunny 110 minutes and 31 seconds. As always, Hackman is terrific (though he should stop enabling bad movies with his stalwart presence); Romano, in his live-action big-screen debut, unfortunately displays the limits of his untrained acting range and, worse, fails to generate more than a handful of chuckles.

Hackman plays hugely popular former president Monroe "Eagle" Cole, the only commander-in-chief ever to be divorced while in office. When he retreats to his "lovely little summer place" of Mooseport, Maine, the town embraces him cheerfully. In fact, the town council begs him to run (unopposed, they imply) for mayor of Mooseport. Everything that follows requires a huge suspension of logical and emotional disbelief.

Feeling the love and smelling the low maintenance, Cole gives his word that he will run, but whoops! So too has handyman Handy Harrison (Romano). Cole would back out, but dammit, he's given his word. Handy would gladly back out, but his perturbed longtime companion Sally (Maura Tierney)--tired of waiting for a wedding ring--has agreed to a date with Cole. Now it's a pissing match, and may the best man win!

Welcome to Mooseport is very slow to get off the ground, and even then, it's not exactly a world-beater. Director Donald Petrie proves his lack of inspiration, while allowing a hopelessly treacly score by John Debney to manufacture emotional lift for everything but the kitchen sink (check out the puppy-birthing scene). Hackman effectively works his tried-and-true smarmy mode, giving spot-on reads to sitcom one-liners ("I had dignity once—does anybody remember that?"), and his testy dynamic with an aide played by Fred Savage gives the movie one of its only amusing running jokes. Tierney, Rip Torn as a campaign manager, and Christine Baranski as Cole's harridan of an ex-wife turn in the same reliable (and wholly unsurprising) performances we've come to expect of them.

Romano's character is cloddish in his clueless disregard for his girlfriend's intentions (and why wouldn't his central-casting posse—including a black woman who says "mm-hmm!" a lot—fill him in?), but not especially selfish or mean-spirited like his TV sitcom persona. But it's a bad sign that his long-running sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond is, by comparison, so much edgier and smarter. At least on TV, the standup comic turned actor gets good scripts and opportunities for physical comedy; here, he looks understandably nerve-wracked.

If it's funny enough, a comedy has no obligation to be credible, but Welcome to Mooseport is more of a jog than a sprint, so my mind turned to the nonsense we're expected to swallow. Cole is supposedly squandering the millions earmarked for his presidential library on his mayoral campaign. Never mind that this would be an unnecessary and most likely counterproductive strategy against a just-folks opponent: we see no evidence of the dollars supposedly spent. Well, unlike Handy's hand-printed signs, Cole's are pre-printed, but millions of dollars for two-color placards? This gives new meaning to campaign finance reform.

To generate conflict, screenwriter Tom Schulman drafts two mind-numbing debates, then resorts to the sort of logic found in romantic comedies but nowhere in else in nature: Handy and Cole play golf for Sally's affection (without her consent, natch). Schulman also plays the eccentric small town card too often and to no effect. The town has a naked jogger (inexplicably treated as a matter of course), and Tierney's vet transports a donkey by helicopter, glimpsed through Cole's private plane window (ha ha! a donkey!). Not since Doc Hollywood have we laughed so little at small-town life. More interesting than anything in the movie: Tom Schulman's career. He's received sole screenplay credit for What About Bob? and Dead Poets Society, as well as 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag and Holy Man. Maybe his next script can be about a bipolar screenwriter.

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