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Welcome To Mooseport

Sometimes movies come along with ideas so deep that you have to chew them over, savoring them and really pondering their flavor. At other times, you just want something crunchy, and that's why we have popcorn movies. You munch away, and maybe the taste stays with you a little longer than you'd like, but it was fun at the time.

And occasionally you get something a little to the left on the food chain, such as Welcome To Mooseport. It's not a terrible movie, but it has no crunch. Despite a decent concept, director Donald Petrie delivers no bite. Instead, it's pudding: a little sweet, sliding down easily, but aw, heck, did you really need it when star Ray Romano's own sitcom delivers more punch in 27 minutes than this thing does in over 90?

In hindsight, that shouldn't come as a surprise. Petrie has become a journeyman at inoffensive comedies, starting with Grumpy Old Men and rolling right into this from How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days. Everybody does love Raymond, but not because he's a particularly good actor, nor does he make an effort to stretch. (By everybody, I speak of the general public, not necessarily those of refined tastes that find themselves here.) Despite actually having good timing, too, when it comes to film comedies, Maura Tierney usually shows up as a placeholder. Not even Gene Hackman co-starring should guarantee quality; he has reached the stage in his career where sometimes a respected actor takes a role in order to work on his golf game.

Hackman plays the awkwardly named Monroe Eagle Cole (awkward because "Eagle" doesn't seem to be a nickname, though it makes for handy catchphrases), the most beloved president in U.S. history. More popular than Clinton, Cole also has the distinction of being the only president sued for divorce while in the White House. Behind the scenes he seems to be something of an ass, rather self-centered and more concerned over the ostentation of his legacy than its quality. As a character bit, it's only the first story element to inexplicably turn around on a dime so that we can have a Hallmark ending.

Moving into his summer home in Mooseport, Maine, Cole is drafted by the town council to replace the recently-deceased Mayor. Though he has plans for a speaking tour and means to earn and hide a lot of money from his ex-wife (Christine Baranski), Cole finds himself smitten by local veterinarian Sally Mannis (Tierney) and agrees to run just to impress her. The catch? A second contingent from the registrar's office drafted hardware store owner Handy Harrison (Romano) to run, too, and the commitment-phobic Harrison has been dating Mannis for six years.

With stakes personal and public, Welcome To Mooseport could have been many things. From the moment the Handy-Sally relationship gets established, though, it's easy to see where it's going (and it does go there). The film dances around satirizing the political game, but keeps shying away from saying anything really important. Even when Cole's campaign manager (Rip Torn) shows up and starts plotting elaborate completely unnecessary million-dollar strategies, the script just winks and asks if you want whipped cream on that, honey. Thank heavens for Torn, though, because no man alive can growl "son of a bitch" with better comic delivery.

A few moments threaten to make the movie better. In particular, a third act confrontation between Cole's aide (Marcia Gay Hardin) and Sally has some sparkle to it. As an unctuous assistant, Fred Savage continues carving out a decent career as a character actor. Baranski plays the embittered ex-wife broadly, but at least it puts some jolt into her scenes, even though everything actually explaining what the heck she's doing in Mooseport seems to have been left on the cutting room floor.

That kind of sloppy continuity shows up in a couple of places. One political "issue" during a debate shows up in a news crawl, as if, again, there was something meatier to this film that somebody blindly hacked away. The two faces of Cole, arrogant ass and decent man, only come together because Hackman makes it believable out of his own talent, not the script.

If it seems like Romano gets short shrift here, it's because there's nothing much to say. He does his usual stammering schtick, and when required, manfully holds back tears. If you think he's funny on television, you might be amused here.

But in truth, if not for the presence of Romano and Hackman, Welcome To Mooseport could just as easily been made for the ABC Family Channel, and nobody would have noticed. Maybe when a comedy fails so badly in its potential, it should just wind up on cable.



Derek McCaw

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