`Mooseport' elects to bore

February 20, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Determinedly genial and relentlessly bland, that's life in good ol' Mooseport.

A feckless romantic comedy if ever there was one, Welcome to Mooseport depicts a small town filled with dim bulbs who revel in their dimness and oddballs who force themselves to remain odd (because everyone knows odd is funny, right?). Worse, the film turns on nonsensical conflicts where, if a single character would only take a moment and think rationally, the movie could end anywhere past the 10-minute mark.

All that, and it wastes a cast - winners of a kajillion Oscars and Emmys among them - capable of far, far better.

Gene Hackman, struggling to balance the movie on his ever-capable shoulders, is ex-President Monroe "The Eagle" Cole, a shallow, seemingly rudderless politician who, we are told, was the most popular president ever. Thanks to a recent divorce, he's had to give up the mansion in Baltimore - the local plug provides one of the film's few moments of excitement - and retire to Mooseport, Maine, a town where old men happily jog naked down the street (oddballs, remember?) and pet moose munch contentedly on window-box flowers.

The city fathers, of course, are thrilled by their town's newfound notoriety, especially when the mayor drops dead - who better to hand-pick for a successor than an ex-president?

The Eagle has his doubts, however, until he gets an eyeful of town vet Sally Mannis (Maura Tierney) and decides she's his one field left to conquer.

So he throws his hat into what he assumes is an otherwise empty ring. But unbeknown to everyone else, town plumber and hardware-store owner "Handy" Harrison (Ray Romano) has also opted to run. By a convenient twist of fate, he's Sally's longtime boyfriend. And even more conveniently, they're on the outs, Sally being fed up with his refusal to pop the question. Maybe it's time she found someone else, and who better than a bewitched ex-president?

All this sounds funnier than it is, mainly because director Donald Petrie (Miss Congeniality) and writers Tom Schulman and Doug Richardson undercut the humor at nearly every turn.

Petrie, who's made a career of fair-to-middling comedies (like Grumpy Old Men and My Favorite Martian), seems chronically unable to pull the trigger. And even when he does stumble onto a promising premise - The Eagle's campaign dipping into funds earmarked for his presidential library - he seems at a loss what to do with it.

All this leaves a talented supporting cast, including Rip Torn as The Eagle's heavy-handed campaign manager, Christine Baranski as the former first lady and Fred Savage as a sycophantic aide, scrambling to pump life into things. Most egregiously neglected is Marcia Gay Harden as the longtime aide who really loves The Eagle, if only he'd notice. What this intelligent, idealistic woman sees in the guy is a mystery, one Harden works harder to reveal than the script.

Romano, so endearingly befuddled on TV's Everybody Loves Raymond, relies on that likability to see him through here, and the act quickly wears thin; his Handy doesn't come across as particularly pleasant or lovable, just hopelessly dim. Romano may have a big-screen career ahead of him, but Mooseport doesn't make for much of a start.

Welcome to Mooseport

Starring Gene Hackman, Ray Romano, Maura Tierney

Directed by Donald Petrie

Rated PG-13 (brief sexual comments and nudity)

Released by 20th Century Fox

Time 105 minutes

Sun Score **

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