Welcome to Mooseport

I have no idea if the portrait of post-presidential life in Welcome to Mooseport is an accurate one, but it looks like an ongoing, hectic effort to reassure a former president that he’s still top dog. Apparently, he who once sat in the Oval Office can still count on flocks of obsequious aides, eager reporters wherever he goes (I beg to differ — do you know what Bill Clinton was doing last week?), and hulking Secret Service agents shadowing his steps. Imagine how divorced from reality a sitting president must be. (Many of us don’t have to imagine.)

Welcome to Mooseport got my ticket vote based on a new rule I made up: If there’s a choice between four uninspiring new movies, and one of them stars Gene Hackman, go with Gene Hackman. The movie isn’t exactly a jewel in his crown, but it doesn’t disgrace him — Hackman is too suavely comfortable with comedy to let even a coarsely written sitcom of a movie drag him down. Hackman is Monroe “Eagle” Cole, an ex-president coming off of two wildly successful terms in office (he enjoyed an “85% approval rating,” we’re told, neatly sidestepping the issue of what party he belongs to; he’s seen reading something with a Democratic letterhead near the beginning, but that doesn’t prove much). He’s also coming off of a nasty divorce; he flees to his vacation home of Mooseport, Maine (Canada mostly body-doubles for the Pine Tree State), where he’s received as if he were a returning king instead of a vacationer.

Mooseport’s mayor has just died, and the townspeople immediately beg Monroe to step into the job. After some thought, Monroe accepts, mostly as a public-relations move (he’s concerned about getting his presidential library built — it has to be twice as big as Clinton’s). An interesting comedy might’ve followed Monroe and his staff (including efficient assistant Marcia Gay Harden and cringing PR lackey Fred Savage) through the oddities of rural politics, perhaps turning the nation’s most popular president into Maine’s most unpopular mayor.

Instead, we get a second story, that of humble plumber and Mooseport native Handy Harrison (Ray Romano), whose commitmentphobia endangers his six-year relationship with his veterinarian girlfriend Sally (Maura Tierney). He decides to run for mayor, too, putting himself in Monroe’s politically savvy crosshairs. If the movie had been about Handy, a decent, honest fellow undone by the unethical demands of seeking public office, we might’ve had a zesty little satire.

So whose story is this? Nobody’s. We don’t know whom we’re meant to root for, and the movie tips its rather desperate hand when both candidates fall into an Alphonse-and-Gaston act of endorsing each other for mayor. Do they really care who wins? Does the movie care? Should we? Welcome to Mooseport is also the most shabbily edited movie released by a major studio in some time. When Monroe discovers that Handy has put his name in for mayor, it’s as much a surprise to us as it is to Monroe; we seem to be missing the scene wherein Handy actually decides to undertake this life-changing effort — it’s as if the projectionist skipped a reel. Similarly, when Monroe’s shrewish ex-wife (Christine Baranski, in fine, scary voice) storms into town to support Handy, Monroe accuses Handy of plotting to bring her into the race; Handy denies it, and we believe him, but we never do find out who did bring her in.

For all that, the movie is amiable nonsense, painless enough to sit through (provided you do so on your couch when there’s nothing else good on TV). Ray Romano may be looking to upgrade to movies, but I’m not sure that what amounts to a supporting role opposite Gene Hackman is going to do it for him. Romano is his usual modest, regular-guy self, which works just fine on prime time, and is the exact opposite of what’s required of a movie star. He seems in awe of Hackman, and not just in character as Handy. Welcome to Mooseport somehow becomes a behind-the-scenes essay on why Gene Hackman — as unlikely a movie star as there’s ever been, on the surface — has endured for four decades, while the presentable, inoffensive Romano should probably go back to stand-up after his show is over, or do woolly-mammoth voices in kid’s cartoons.

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