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(2003) (Ray Romano, Gene Hackman) (PG-13)

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Comedy: An unassuming small town plumber faces serious competition for his girlfriend and the local mayoral race when he learns that his opponent for both is the former President of the United States.
Mooseport, Maine is the sort of little town where everybody knows everyone there, including Harold "Handy" Harrison (RAY ROMANO), the amiable and reliable plumber. He's been seeing veterinarian Sally Mannis (MAURA TIERNEY) for six years, but is reluctant -- for a number of reasons -- to pop the question, leaving her increasingly dissatisfied in their relationship.

It and the town are then shaken up with the arrival of former U.S. President Monroe "Eagle" Cole (GENE HACKMAN). The most popular man to hold that office in years, he's looking forward to recovering from a financial beating at the hands of his ex-wife and former First Lady, Charlotte Cole (CHRISTINE BARANSKI), who's taken him for most everything he's worth.

When Cole arrives in town, little does he know that the local council has decided he should succeed the recently deceased mayor. Although his assistant, Grace Sutherland (MARCIA GAY HARDEN) and PR man, Bullard (FRED SAVAGE), think it's a bad idea, the former President gives his word that he will.

Little does he know, however, that Handy already threw his hat into the ring. When the unassuming plumber learns that he's up against the President, he graciously bows out. Yet, when Cole asks out Sally -- unaware that she's seeing Handy -- and she accepts, the plumber reenters the race, determined to get Sally back and win the election.

With Cole's former campaign manager, Bert Langdon (RIP TORN), back on the job, and Handy's friends and co-workers, such as Irma (JUNE SQUIBB), urging him on, the two men prepare to do battle -- campaign style -- for control of Mooseport.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
The timing of a movie's big screen release has seemingly become such a critical element of its potential success or failure that I wouldn't be surprised if the studios have entire teams of "experts" whose sole duty is to figure out the optimum time to unleash their product.

Beyond the summer season sporting the blockbusters and the winter getting the hopeful Oscar contenders, the studios have to decide whether to release certain films around their real-world temporal setting (such as scary movies at Halloween or romantic comedies around Valentines Day) or simply pick an open date and let the chips fall where they may.

Considering that we're now a bit past the beginning of the current and months long Presidential election race, it will be interesting to see how well the politically themed "Welcome to Mooseport" will do with constituents, uh, viewers.

Of course, politically based films have been released in most every month over the years in both election cycles and not. Yet, I imagine it's a risky bet trying to decide if raised political awareness this time of year will help this film or drive away viewers who are already tired of politics as usual.

The advantage the film has, however, is that it's a comedy revolving around a non-Presidential race (although it has a former President as one of the nominees) in a fictional Maine small town. The bad news -- like any shocking revelation leaked by a political opponent -- is that it's not very funny.

And when the film's star states in an interview - eerily mirroring the honest political candidate character he plays - that even he doesn't think it's that funny, you know this might not be the cinematic candidate you wish to support with your hard-earned dollars.

All of which is too bad since the film features a terrific, talented and charismatic cast of performers. Beyond the surprisingly honest Ray Romano, there's Gene Hackman ("Runaway Jury," "The Royal Tenenbaums") as his over-qualified mayoral opponent and Marcia Gay Harden ("Mystic River," "Mona Lisa Smile") playing the ex-President's assistant. Rip Torn ("Wonder Boys," the 'Men in Black" films) appears as the savvy campaign manager, while Maura Tierney ("Insomnia," "Liar Liar") plays the local veterinarian who becomes just as desirous for the two candidates as the political victory.

While it's not hard to predict how things will turn out or that various political and small-town clichés will be trotted out, the premise of an ex-President running against a local plumber for the mayorship is obviously ripe with comedy potential.

Unfortunately, the screenplay by Tom Schulman ("Holy Man," "What About Bob?") plays out more like an elongated sitcom episode. As a result, director Donald Petrie ("How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days," "Miss Congeniality") works hard to elicit laughs, but can't do much since most of the material isn't as funny or clever as its smaller screen cousins often manage to be.

Much of that fault lies with the construction of Romano's character and his portrayal of him (in the actor's big screen debut). In short, Handy is a somewhat dumb-downed and less edgy version of the actor's character in the TV sitcom, "Everybody Loves Raymond."

We're supposed to root for him since he's the classic underdog who must fight not only for the political position but also his girlfriend. Yet, the character simply isn't that endearing. One never can figure out why Tierney's girlfriend character hasn't dumped him - after six years of non-commitment -- long before Hackman shows up, and that severely lessens our involvement in the proceedings.

As does the lack of genuine humor. While I smiled a few times and occasionally let out a chuckle, I otherwise found the film mostly bereft of decent laughs or simple comedy material. And that includes a noticeable absence of clever or imaginative ploys on either side of the campaign to win at any cost, regardless of the legal or moral ramifications.

The "best" the filmmakers can do is trot out Christine Baranski ("Marci X," "Chicago") as the former President's ex-wife who enjoys putting the screw to him financially and politically. While the actress undeniably puts a great deal of lung effort into her performance, her conniving, harpy character is really only amusing the first time around.

The rest involves Romano's character accidentally happening to do exactly what Hackman's was planning, thus giving the veteran actor plenty of opportunity to grimace and grit his teeth in frustration. Unfortunately, it's not terribly funny.

Overall, the film isn't horrible and the game cast makes it easy enough to watch. One only wishes, however, that it showed more smarts, creativity and, more importantly, generated far more laughs than it manages. Unlikely to get anyone's vote for best comedy of the year, "Welcome to Mooseport" scores a disappointing 4 out of 10.

Reviewed February 15, 2004 / Posted February 20, 2004

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