Welcome to Mooseport

Welcome to Mooseport
Director: Donald Petrie
Screenplay: Tom Schulman (story by Doug Richardson)
Stars: Gene Hackman (Monroe “Eagle” Cole), Ray Romano (Handy Harrison), Marcia Gay Harden (Grace Sutherland), Maura Tierney (Sally Mannis), Christine Baranski (Charlotte Cole), Fred Savage (Bullard), Rip Torn (Bert Langdon), June Squibb (Irma), Wayne Robson (Morris Gutman)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2004
Country: U.S.

Gene Hackman and Ray Romano Welcome to Mooseport is a political satire that wants to be little more than a warm’n’fuzzy comedy. There’s plenty of ripe comedic potential for skewering politics, but the movie bypasses almost all of it. In some ways, this is a letdown, but the result, watered down as it is, still works on its own merits—if barely.

The titular town is located in scenic Maine, and it’s populated with an eclectic and lovable group of small town denizens that surely exist only in the movies, from the overenthusiastic civic boosters, to the nosy gossipers, to the old man who jogs naked through the middle town everyday. There’s even a town mascot—a moose, natch—and when something as important as a mayoral election comes up, everybody participates.

This year’s mayoral election is a little different, though. The beloved mayor, having been re-elected throughout the past quarter-century, has just died, so the position needs to be filled immediately. Local hardware store owner and plumber Handy Harrison (Ray Romano, making his big-screen debut) decides to throw his hat in the ring, only to learn that the local boosters have asked Monroe “Eagle” Cole (Gene Hackman), the former President of the United States, to run. Cole has just moved into town after the most successful two-term Presidency in history (he had an 85% approval rating and even survived a divorce during his Presidency), and his decision to accept the candidacy for mayor would seem to be beneath him. But, as any good President does, Cole recognizes potentially great PR when he sees it, and his stepping up to help run Mooseport in its time of need could play perfectly into his already shining image: the big man helping the little man, just as it should be.

Although it seems that he would pose no real competition, Handy turns out to be a formidable opponent for Cole, although not through any conscious effort on his part. Handy knows nothing about politics or electioneering, which turns out to be his greatest asset. He’s honestly, genuinely, fully sincere. When he answers a question in a debate, it has nothing to do with his having thought it out ahead of time, or his desire to please a constituency, or his urge to answer in such a way that pleases the most number of potential voters, but rather because that’s what he thinks at that particular moment. It’s something that Cole, a career politician, can’t hope to contend with.

This is where the movie could have gone had it wanted to be a sharp political satire in the vein of say The Candidate (1972), Wag the Dog (1997), or even Bulworth (1998). Instead, much of the story bogs down in a romantic entanglement that begins when Cole innocently asks the local veterinarian, Sally Mannis (Maura Tierney), out on a date. In an ironic twist, Sally is Handy’s girlfriend of the past seven years, and she accepts the date with Cole largely because she’s become tired of waiting for Handy to pop the question (something he seems incapable of doing). Screenwriter Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society, What About Bob?) and director Donald Petrie (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) get some mileage out of media mockery in showing how the news reporters swarm in on this romantic triangle and make it a central feature of the mayoral race, but the jokes are a little too easy and obvious to stick.

Mostly, Welcome to Mooseport is more than satisfied with skating by on the charm of its lead actors. Gene Hackman is a consummate pro, and his character works largely because of his performance, not the way it’s written. For instance, in a scene near the end of the movie, Grace Sutherland (Marcia Gay Harden), Cole’s doting chief of staff who has secretly had her eye on him for the past 15 years, chastises him for having sunk to new lows in his race against Handy and implores him to return to the man of integrity he once was. Yet, when we first meet Cole, he’s a pompous, ego-driven man who cares only about the $120,000 he’ll be making for every speaking engagement, the $14 million advance offered for his memoir, and the 40,000-square-foot Presidential library that will be built in his honor (all of these, of course, are compared against Bill Clinton’s numbers). Thus, Grace’s admonitions make no sense except for how they play into the movie’s romanticism. Furthermore, Cole’s rampant obsession with his post-Presidential image and legacy (clearly modeled on Clinton’s) is yet another satirical opportunity bypassed.

For his part, Ray Romano, known across the land for his hit TV series Everybody Loves Raymond, manages to hold his own, although he is basically playing a variation on his TV persona—nice and affable, but largely clueless. Welcome to Mooseport marks his first foray into a starring role in a major movie, and it will be interesting to see where he goes from here. There isn’t much room on the big screen for his TV persona to grow, so it won’t be able to carry him throughout his movie career. He might take some advice from Jennifer Aniston, who relied on her Friends persona through a series of clumsy and forgettable romantic comedies before finally taking a risk with The Good Girl (2002), which gave her some cinematic credibility (which, hopefully, she won’t squander). Romano would be wise to do likewise.

Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick

All images Copyright ©2004 20th Century Fox Film Corporation

Overall Rating: (2.5)

James Kendrick

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