"Welcome to Mooseport" is a fusty, rusty, laugh-track-lame comedy about two petty, immature men running for mayor of the same stereotypically idyllic small town and vying for the affections of the same apparently undiscriminating small-town woman.
One of them (an unusually humdrum Gene Hackman) is the newly termed-out President of the United States, who has retired to the little Maine burg and enters the race as a PR stunt that goes awry. The other (torpid TV star Ray Romano) is a plumber who owns the local hardware store and hasn't the backbone to commit to anything -- and yet he's persuaded to run for office. Or so we're told. Even though it's pivotal to the plot, this cajoling takes place off-screen for no good reason.
But the rivals' stations in life hardly matter since, once you get past the screenplay's fresh paint, these two guys are the same stale, odious, infantile jerks that have been pawned off as Everyman heroes in every other ill-conceived comedy from the last 20 years.
Spite and silly mistakes lead both candidates into the race while ridiculous false dilemmas prevent them from withdrawing. Apparently this "most popular president in history" (who is paradoxically played as an arrogant charlatan) will be shunned from lucrative speaking engagements and book deals if he doesn't go through with it.
Meanwhile Romano the modest rube mistakenly thinks (without explanation) that if he loses the election, he'll never win back his irritated girlfriend (Maura Tierney), who has decided, after waiting six years for Mr. Wishy-Washy to pop the question, that she'll make him jealous by dating the ex-president.
Director Donald Petrie (of the insufferable "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days") and writer Tom Schulman -- whose track record ranges from the banal ("Dead Poets Society") to the bloody awful (the Eddie Murphy bomb "Holy Man") -- don't seem to realize they're working with a cast full of unsympathetic characters here.
Even though Hackman hires a campaign guru (Rip Torn) and starts playing dirty election politics, "Mooseport" treats him as a misguided co-protagonist alongside Romano, who spends most of the movie with his foot in his mouth. He commits all the customary comedy blunders that perpetuate the myth of the Stupid Male, encourage women to lower their standards and lead to so-called "happy endings" full of meaningless, mealy-mouthed mea culpas.
It's even difficult to get behind Tierney's supposedly sensible, independent object of desire because 1) instead of communicating with Romano she plays dumb little head games, and 2) as a veterinarian with a good head on her shoulders and her own practice, she could obviously do much better than a whiny wet towel like him anyway. So why on earth is she still hanging around this chump -- especially after he and Hackman play a round of winner-takes-all golf to determine who gets to keep pursuing her, as if it's the 19th Century and she has no say in the matter?
Add to the mix all the titular town's condescendingly quaint Central-Casting eccentrics (the same ones that populate every falsely charming Hollywood-backlot hamlet), plus one subplot about the ex-president's recent divorce ("Terrorists were easier to deal with," jokes Hackman, as if waiting for a rim shot), and another about his personal assistant (Marcia Gay Harden) being secretly in love with him, and "Welcome to Mooseport" covers just about every tiresome storyline it could possibly accommodate without any actual creativity being proffered.
Just about the only element of the film that doesn't ring false is the outrageous amount of press coverage this little mayoral race attracts -- something Petrie and Schulman use only for unimaginative narrative purposes, completely failing to exploit for its satirical possibilities. This what passes for political satire in the George W. Bush era?
Run time: 110 mins
In Theaters: Friday 20th February 2004
Box Office USA: $14.2M
Box Office Worldwide: $14M
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Production compaines: 20th Century Fox
Contactmusic.com: 1.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 13%
Fresh: 19 Rotten: 125
IMDB: 5.2 / 10
Director: Donald Petrie
Starring: Ray Romano as Harold 'Handy' Harrison, Gene Hackman as Monroe "Eagle" Cole, Marcia Gay Harden as Grace Sutherland, Maura Tierney as Dr. Sally Mannis, June Squibb as Irma, Christine Baranski as Charlotte Cole, Fred Savage as Bullard, Rip Torn as Bert Langdon, Wayne Robson as Morris Gutman
Also starring: Edward Herrmann