Welcome to Mooseport (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

What might have been… Those four words tell the sad story of too many films, and Welcome to Mooseport is one of them. It starts out with a terrific premise, ripe with the potential for the kind of political satire we haven't seen on the big screen since Bulworth: what if a popular ex-president ran against a likable hardware store owner to be the mayor of a small town? But a premise is nothing more than a sturdy building block, and, in this case, the filmmakers have employed the shoddiest construction crew imaginable. Welcome to Mooseport's satirical edge is dull and pitted, the screenplay is overlong and uninteresting, the comedy is soft and shapeless, and the actors perform like they're on a sit com. There's not a whole lot to like about Welcome to Mooseport, and, considering how lively real politics can be these days, you're likely to get more entertainment from watching two hours of CSPAN.

Monroe Eagle Cole (Gene Hackman) left office with the highest approval rating of any departing U.S. President. Ahead of him lie a whirlwind of profitable speaking engagements, each netting $125,000 (versus Clinton's $100,000), a ghost-written autobiography (for at least $10 million), and a 40,000-square foot presidential library (versus Clinton's 20,000-square foot venue). All is well in Monroe's world, except that his rapacious ex-wife, Charlotte (Christine Baranski), is eager to squeeze him for as much as she can get. Monroe decides to begin his ex-White House life in the little town of Mooseport, Maine. Since the local mayor has just died, the town council decides to offer the top job to Monroe. Thinking of the publicity angle, he accepts - only to discover that someone else applied for the position. That someone is local handyman and hardware store owner, Handy Harrison (Ray Romano). Handy is more than willing to withdraw until the ex-President starts wooing his girlfriend, Sally Mannis (Maura Tierney), and then the gloves come off. With the help of his crack team - aides Grace (Marica Gay Harden) and Bullard (Fred Savage), and campaign manager Bert Langdon (Rip Torn) - Monroe goes into full election mode, only to learn that he knows little about how to win when there are only 500 voters.

Welcome to Mooseport's humor, whether it's aimed at the political system or just trying to get a few mild chuckles, is flaccid - a limp noodle has more starch. Any portion of drama that might have offset the failed comedy is compromised by a lack of credible characters. Monroe starts out as the epitome of a shallow, charismatic politician, then somehow morphs into a guy who's not really that bad after all. Handy, on the other hand, is so incredibly wimpy that it's impossible to like the man. Everyone else is either shrill (Charlotte) or insignificant. And Sally manages to be the most uninteresting romantic foil in recent cinema.

This is the big screen debut of Ray Romano (if you don't count his voice work for Ice Age). Despite being a major presence on television since 1996, Romano has not yet crossed over to movies, and his lackluster work here may be an indication of why. The comedian-turned-actor's low-key, sadsack style may work in the comfy confines of "Everyone Loves Raymond," but, in Welcome to Mooseport, it leaves the audience cold. "Raymond" is funny and occasionally edgy; this movie is neither, and Romano spends most of the movie trying to find a way to make his character affable and his dialogue funny. Meanwhile, Gene Hackman tosses out the kind of adequate performance he could do in his sleep. Maura Tierney is singularly unappealing as Sally; she seems tired, and, considering some of the things her character has to say and do, that's understandable. Christine Baranski deserves mention, if only because she's so annoying that even one scene with her is too many. (It's possible to argue that this is great acting, since it's the character more than the actress who's unbearable.)

Welcome to Mooseport's director is Donald Petrie, and a quick glance at his resume (which includes such memorable fare as My Favorite Martian, Miss Congeniality, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) sets expectations for this film. Yet, in a case like this, the blame should not rest entirely on the director's shoulders. Screenwriter Tom Schulman has to share equal responsibility; the characters are spouting his banal dialogue, and his jokes sputter at an alarming rate. And if the filmmakers are foolish enough to believe they are offering any kind of insight into or witty commentary on politics, they're about as realistic as a candidate's campaign promises.

Welcome to Mooseport (United States, 2004)

Director: Donald Petrie
Cast: Gene Hackman, Ray Romano, Marcia Gay Harden, Maura Tierney, Christine Baranski, Fred Savage, Rip Torn
Screenplay: Tom Schulman
Cinematography: Victor Hammer
Music: John Debney
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2004-02-20
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Mature Themes, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1