The most popular president in U.S. history meets his political match in “Welcome to Mooseport,” a high-concept small-town comedy long on running time and short on real laughs. Despite a fine cast headed by Gene Hackman as the recently retired prez and Ray Romano as an ordinary hardware store owner who runs against him for mayor of a coastal Maine burg, Fox release lacks the antic energy and inspired imagination that might have put this over as a sharp-witted community comedy in the Preston Sturges vein. Commercial prospects look mild, the wild card being the untested B.O. draw repped by TV star Romano.
Substantial mirth seems promised by the prospect of Hackman playing Monroe “Eagle” Cole, who has just left the oval office after two massively successful terms and now brings his swelled head to Mooseport, where he has previously summered. Accompanied by his efficient and adoring personal secretary Grace (Marcia Gay Harden), press secretary Bullard (Fred Savage) and a regiment of self-serious security personnel and flunkies, Cole looks forward to lounging around reading the paper while fielding multi-million-dollar offers for speaking engagements, memoirs and car commercials.
The city fathers have other ideas: Mooseport’s mayor just died, and Cole is encouraged to run for the post. Imagining his obligations as largely ceremonial and spurred by the belief that his financially voracious ex-wife Charlotte (Christine Baranski) won’t be able to lay claim to the seaside house if it’s an official residence, Cole decides to run.
But Cole, who was the first president to be divorced while occupying the White House, sparks an unanticipated electoral race when he asks out attractive local veterinarian Sally (Maura Tierney), the longtime but currently fed up girlfriend of Handy Harrison the hardware man (Romano). Seized by mild-mannered jealousy, Handy jumps into the mayor’s race too, going so far as to begin campaigning at the very restaurant where Cole and Sally are having their first date, an event being recorded in every detail as a national news event.
As the stakes are upped for both political and personal reasons (Cole’s fees will allegedly plummet if he loses his first race to a nonentity), Cole calls in his crafty old campaign manager (Rip Torn), who begins applying big-time strategies to the municipal race; one of the few hearty laughs stems from Cole asking how big the sampling was for some downbeat polling statistics, only to be told it was the whole town.
The candidates hold two debates and engage in a one-on-one golf match to determine who will get Sally; latter contest exposes how much the ex-prez’s golf scores had been improved by his staff, who hide in the trees and underbrush and throw balls out into the fairway when they go off-course.
To be sure, the women have something to say about how things turn out; drunkenly bonding in the clubhouse while the guys play their round, Sally and Grace seem to inspire in one another the gumption to deliver ultimatums to their less than attentive men.
Indeed, a certain unease lurks around the edges of the would-be romantic relationships penned by Tom Schulman from Doug Richardson’s story. Sally is frustrated over having waited for six years for Handy to commit, and it doesn’t take long to feel that she is right to look for greener pastures elsewhere, so lacking in amorous gumption is Handy. But however alluring a popular ex-president may be, Cole is in his early 70s, and it would take some deeper character analysis to convince that Sally might actually consider him as a legitimate candidate for her attentions.
In almost all respects, “Welcome to Mooseport” lacks the sort of spirit, sharpness and impudent sense of fun to fulfill the promise of the premise. The small town (actually filmed in Toronto and Port Perry, Canada) is presented only in generic ways, the supporting cast beyond the Hollywood names is thin and any attempt at pointed political humor, other than making wan and repetitive fun of Cole’s entourage, is avoided. Even Hackman, who would seem born to play such a role, lacks that extra spring in his step and undercurrent of maliciousness that mark his best performances, which is not to the credit of director Donald Petrie.
Romano, in his first bigscreen starring role (he scored strongly as the voice of the mammoth in the animated “Ice Age” and was part of the ensemble cast in the Sundance entry “Eulogy”), uses the sharp timing and deadpan underplaying familiar from “Everybody Loves Raymond” to good effect, but isn’t challenged to deliver anything new. Tierney, Harden, Baranski and Torn deliver in pro form. Lensing is blah, other tech contributions routine.