Archive for Monday, February 23, 2004

Mooseport’ worth visiting for a few hours

(PG-13) **1/2

February 23, 2004

Gene Hackman would make a fine president.

At least his character Monroe Eagle Cole would.

The popular, two-term veteran always knows the right thing to say,
whether debating, dealing with the media or trying to sweet-talk a
girl - which in Cole's case is not a skill just limited to office
interns, as he is legally divorced from his harpy of a wife
(Christine Baranski).

Yes, Cole is just the kind of zealous, egocentric jerk that could
actually get things accomplished in the White House.

So when he decides to retire from public office to the tiny burg of
Mooseport, where he keeps a summer home (his wife retained the
primary estate in the divorce), it's quite a shock to find himself
embroiled in a tight campaign for mayor. Even more surprising is that
Cole's opponent is Handy Harrison (Ray Romano), the hardware store
owner. The two meet while Harrison is fixing Cole's toilet.

Handy has his own relationship problems. His longtime girlfriend
Sally (Maura Tierney) is getting impatient about their go-nowhere
relationship. So what really compels him to get down and dirty in
this mayoral race is when he discovers the ex-president hitting on
Sally.

As Bugs Bunny would say, "Of course you know this means war!"

Usually, a distinguished cast coupled with an original premise is
reason enough to green light a project. In this instance, it's the
only thing that keeps the lightweight comedy from drifting away.

"Welcome to Mooseport" has its share of clever ideas - a
rock/paper/scissors battle between the two men to determine the order
in which they will debate is hilarious, as is a running gag about an
elderly naked jogger. Yet the picture is packaged with so little
flair that's it's difficult to love.

Director Donald Petrie - the auteur behind such girly fluff as "Miss
Congeniality" and "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" - adds nothing
beyond the point-and-shoot method of filmmaking. That type of dry
approach may work fine on the set of "Everybody Loves Raymond" (which
already benefits from superior writing), but it comes across as
deadly dull in the multiplex.

The flatness of the visuals makes the overlong running time of the
movie that much more noticeable. And little details like filling the
soundtrack with such obvious choices doesn't help matters. (The
opening credits blast John Mellencamp's "Small Town." As the battle
of wills rages between the two men, War's "Why Can't We Be Friends?"
is heard.)

Any comic timing that the film exhibits should be credited to the
innate talents of the actors.

As usual, the infallible Hackman proves both charming and menacing in
the same breath. He elevates the material of any scene he's in, and
this showy part offers him oodles of screen time.

Also quite good is the president's team of handlers, led by his
devoted executive secretary (fellow Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden)
and mousy public relations director (Fred Savage). Rip Torn also has
a memorable stint as Cole's unscrupulous campaign manager who decides
to help spearhead the small-town election because D.C. is "deader
than Nixon right now."

Surprisingly, Romano seems the least comfortable with his role. While
his cinematic Handy is not too far removed from his network Ray, the
curmudgeonly Romano doesn't connect as well in this setting. The TV
actor seems less sympathetic when not surrounded by a demanding wife,
annoying parents and combative brother. Ultimately, in this movie
he's just a whiny dolt.

Mooseport, Maine, seems like a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't
want to live there.

Similarly, "Welcome to Mooseport" is a mildly diverting comedy that
you would never need to sit through again.

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