Welcome to Mooseport

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews Robin Clifford 
Welcome to Mooseport
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews Laura Clifford 
Ex-President Monroe “Eagle” Cole (Gene Hackman) had the highest popularity rating since JFK. He is also the first president to get divorced while in office and, after his ex took him to the cleaners, is heading to his summer home in Maine to make a new life for himself. When the town fathers convince him to run for mayor his only competition is local hardware store owner Handy Harrison (Ray Romano). But, the former leader of the free world soon learns that local politics aren’t all that easy in “Welcome to Mooseport.”

Former President Cole, following his two very successful terms of office, is looking forward to his retirement in the peaceful town of Mooseport, Maine. Lucrative speaking engagements, a multi-million dollar book deal and offers from Fortune 500 companies look to make a bright retreat for the “Eagle.” When he is approached by the town leaders to run, unopposed, for the recently vacated mayoral seat (the former holder upped and died), Cole sees it as a lark of an opportunity and good PR. But, unknown to almost everyone in the town, local plumber and hardware store owner Harold “Handy” Harrison also throws his hat into the ring.

Handy, who entered his name without knowledge of the president’s plans, is having commitment problems with his long-time girlfriend, veterinarian Sally Mannis (Maura Tierney). He is more excited about the prospect of buying a new truck than he is about Sally, or so it seems. Fed up, she accepts a dinner date with the new guy in town, Monroe, and a rivalry, both politically and personally, forms between the candidates as they jockey for office and the affection of the pretty vet. This sums up the story for “Welcome to Mooseport.”

Director Donald Petrie works with the adapted screenplay by Tom Schulman (from a story by Doug Richardson) and comes up with a predictable tale that is part feud, part David and Goliath story and part small town Americana. The result, mainly due to the stellar cast (which includes two Oscar winners – Hackman and Marcia Gay Harden) and solid supporting characters, is an amiable political comedy that has some laughs and few, if any, surprises.

“Welcome to Mooseport” is a well-crafted comedy whose budget and star power make it better than it should be. Gene Hackman is a great American actor but doesn’t put much in the way of dimension into his ex-prez Cole character. Ray Romano, not surprisingly, gives a variation of his “Everyone Loves Raymond” TV persona without much by way of embellishment or change. Maura Tierney, as the smart, attractive, strong love interest shows, again, her on screen charm but is, too held back by the material.

The supporting cast is strongly staffed but is also hampered by the clichéd screenplay. Marcia Gay Harden is solid as Monroe Cole’s chief staff person who has harbored a crush on the president for years. The actress provides depth to the two-dimensional character, Grace Sutherland, and gives far more than she gets from the film. Christine Baranski puts a caustic and amusing edge on her Charlotte Cole character, making the most of her near non-existent role. Fred Savage has the dubious job of being Cole’s lackey and does not get to rise above the lame material that has Cole repeatedly telling his assistant to “get out of my sight.” Not very funny. Rip Torn, as Burt Langdon, has little to do as Monroe’s former campaign manager who return’s to his old boss’s side to run the mayoral race.

Most of the humor in “Welcome to Mooseport” comes from the mouths of the rest of the mostly unknown supporting cast of characters. The humor tends to the sophomoric, such as when Handy finds his assistant watching as the plumber’s dog has his way with the president’s pooch – “Hey, I don’t have cable!” is his excuse. There are some chuckles interspersed throughout the film, though few of them are delivered by the stars.

Techs are of good quality, as one would expect, with attention paid to the look and feel of the tiny Maine hamlet of Mooseport. From the resident moose to the homey campaign placards and antler hats developed by the locals for Handy’s mayoral run, the film shows small town America at its most pristine. Quality lensing by Victor Hammer helps lend efficacy to the proceeds.

The script, unfortunately, telegraphs the film’s outcome all too readily. When Handy misses the point of Sally’s frustration with him – when he says “I’m ready!” she thinks he is finally talking marriage when he is really talking about a new truck – you know it will turn out all right in the end. The unrequited love Grace displays for Monroe early on wraps up routinely and without surprise. The race for office ends in exactly the way I expected.

“Welcome to Mooseport” is a well worn story about the rich and powerful versus the average Joe, with a love interest tossed in, and does nothing new. The laughs are more like chuckles and none of the main players are the suppliers of this mirth. Its heart is in the right place even if its aim isn’t. I give it a C. 

'Handy' Harrison (Ray Romano, TV's "Everybody Loves Raymond) is comfortable with his six year relationship with small town vet Sally (Maura Tierney, TV's "ER") and his hardware store/plumbing business.  Then the arrival of retiring President Monroe 'Eagle' Cole (Gene Hackman) throws Handy's life into turmoil when he finds himself squaring off against Cole in both a mayoral race and romantic triangle in "Welcome to Mooseport."

Mooseport opens with a nice synonym for its story, tracking the shoes of a runner heading down the main drag of a small town.  But then the camera pulls back to reveal the runner as elderly nudist Harv, an eccentric the entire town appears to accept, and we realize perhaps the filmmakers had never intended the symbolism.  Lazy screenwriting drags down the efforts of two Oscar winners, Tierney and quirky supporting players all surrounding a television star making an unexciting leap onto the big screen.

Mooseport is beside itself when recently-divorced Cole decides to make his summer home a permanent residence and many locals, Handy included, have been employed fixing up the presidential estate.  When Handy tells Sally that now that he's got an extra $17 grand he might be 'ready,' she thinks he's finally going to pop the question, but is deflated to learn he intends to buy a new truck.  At a celebration to welcome the popular, retired president, Sally catches his eye, then his interest, when she's asked her opinion about his stepping in to replace the town's recently deceased mayor.  Cole is faced with a potential public relations disaster when he discovers that Handy has also put his name into the running, but he smoothly gets the plumber to agree to back out - until, that is, Cole unwittingly asks Handy's girlfriend out on a date and she accepts.  The national media descend upon Mooseport to cover not only its mayoral election but the ex-President's wooing of his foe's former girlfriend.

Screenwriter Tom Schulman ("Holy Man") begins tripping all over himself with his initial character establishments.  Cole is introduced as the most popular U.S. President ever, one who left office with a sky-high 85% approval rating, yet 'Eagle' only appears to be an egomaniac obsessed with the high fees his speaking engagements will fetch, the size of his presidential library, and besting Bill Clinton.  His politically smooth exterior masks condescension towards the locals and an ex-wife (Christine Baranski, providing some of the few funny bright spots of this film) out to milk him for all she can get.  He's also either too stupid or too blinded by his own ego to realize that the Secret Service has been augmenting his golf game since way back when he became elected governor.  Handy is exactly the same type of low-key schmo Romano plays on TV, yet the first indication we get that he's running for mayor comes about as a surprise plot twist that is the wrench thrown into Cole's campaign.  I may be giving the screenplay too much credit to suggest that we're shown Handy is no birddogger by his alarmed separation of his male pooch Plunger from the President's canine lady.  Established character traits also play no part in Handy's motivation in an ineptly handled sequel setup at the film's conclusion.

The movie's romantic triangle has no tension whatsoever as the president's interest in Sally seems pretty arbitrary (his assistant, well played by Marcia Gay Harden, is his obvious eventual partner) and there is no rooting interest in seeing her reestablish her relationship with hangdog Handy either (their eventual engagement scene takes a plumbing joke to unlikely extremes).  The film also only sports about three genuine laughs - Air Force One's taking runway precedence over a vet's helicopter dangling a donkey, Baranski's golf course outburst and Mooseport's charming tradition of beginning town hall debates with a rock-paper-scissors contest.

"Welcome to Mooseport" had me hoping that a February release featuring Hackman could be the surprise that was the underrated "Heartbreakers" back in 2001, but it's merely a Romano vehicle that too quickly runs out of gas.


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