Something terrible seems to have happened to the male population of one small Maine town in the cud-chewing comedy Welcome to Mooseport, something they themselves don’t appear to mind: To a character, every man in this faux-homey burg has been castrated! They’re all impotent buffoons! Native Mooseporter Handy Harrison (Ray Romano), the local hardware-store proprietor and plumber, is so blitheringly uncouth and clueless about the desire of his longtime veterinarian girlfriend, Sally (Maura Tierney), to get married that he makes dense family guy Ray Barone on ”Everybody Loves Raymond” look as suave as Cary Grant.
And former U.S. President Monroe ”Eagle” Cole (Gene Hackman), who has moved to his vacation home as a base for giving high-priced speeches, is an old pol grown soft from the perks of office, a pompous preener who wouldn’t know how to operate his TV remote control without a hovering staff pretending not to do it for him. Cole’s shrewish ex-wife, screeched by Christine Baranski, schemes to keep her claws on his income; his martyr of an executive secretary, enunciated by Marcia Gay Harden (one hopes she earned a bundle), fusses nearby, monitoring how many sugar cubes he drops into his coffee.
When did big-baby boobs like these come to represent American manhood at its most amusing? When did feature-length comedies like this one – written like an uninspired stump speech by Tom Schulman (”Dead Poets Society”) and directed like a rejected campaign ad by Donald Petrie (”How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”) – come to settle for indistinguishably ”colorful” characters as a substitute for anything really funny or sharp to say about American daily life? The Maine location and genteel-Yankee way of Mooseport life suggest the Kennebunkport summer habitat of George and Barbara Bush, yet no use is made of Bushian habits; a few softball references to Cole’s higher polling numbers and fatter memoir advance than Bill Clinton’s are all that links fiction to reality – the better, perhaps, to make fun of the fawning fictional presidential staff. (The leathernecked Secret Service men on Cole’s detail are lunkheads; the PR director played by Fred Savage is a nattering yes-man; the campaign manager barked by Rip Torn is a conniving sharper.)
The movie’s thin joke is that, as the sitcom turns, Cole and Harrison find themselves running against each other for town mayor. (Do election laws allow that?) And that, through further agonizing plot contortions, both of them compete for the affections of Sally, one of those Tierney-riffic women who’s warm and Ivory-soap sexy even when attending to the birth of puppies. ”He’s a genuinely honest man,” a disappointed staffer reports to Cole after looking for dirt with which to derail the plumber’s grassroots campaign. ”That just means he’s never run for office,” the President snarls back, one of those reflexive but anesthetic perceptions about politics that substitute ha-ha for meaning.
Romano, of course, has held the office of small-screen network star for a while, and the persona he has established of a family man more genial slob/selfish adolescent than paterfamilias is genuinely a TV man. His comedy strength is in bits and stand-up observations, 22-minute sitcom premises in which his shtick is offset, in tightly charted story ”beats,” by the shtick of the players around him. A hometown schlemiel who is afraid to commit and doesn’t realize that his girlfriend is as adorable as Maura Tierney – and who drags out his commitmentphobia for nearly two beatless hours – is, as is now proven, exactly the wrong character to get everybody to love Romano on the big screen.
As for Hackman, well. Apparently prohibited by ”Mooseport” ordinance from making ”Eagle” Cole into anything more than a generic Empty Suit in Chief, he stomps through the picture like a candidate at his fifth rubber-chicken-dinner fund-raising stop of the evening. ”I had dignity once! Does anybody remember that?” the ex-Prez splutters. It’s one of those terrible lines of dialogue that can come back and bite a Mooseporter in the butt.