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 that 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," 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.