THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Welcome to Mooseport is set in a picturesque Maine town. It’s the kind of place that perhaps only exists in movies, the kind where everyone is quirky and they all know each other. More than that, they all know everything about each other. Ray Romano plays Handy Harrison, the owner of the town hardware store. He has been dating the same woman, Sally (Maura Tierney), for years. She has long been expecting him to pop the question, but he never does.

Mooseport is a town where not much exciting happens. Usually. That changes when former president Monroe “Eagle” Cole (Gene Hackman) decides to take up residence in the summer home he rarely ever used. Cole is in the midst of a nasty divorce with his wife (Christine Baranski, cast as a harpy for, like, the 200th time). Soon after arriving, the town council approaches Cole about taking over for the recently deceased mayor. He has no interest in the job until he meets Sally. Then he begins to think that being the mayor might bring him closer to her. Plus, if he gets a job, the summer home converts to a residence, meaning that the ex can’t take it in the divorce.

Sally flirts with Cole, not so much because she’s drawn to his power as because she wants to make Handy jealous. It works. Handy is so incensed that the former president is moving in on his girlfriend that he, too, decides to run for mayor just to make things tough on Cole. This doesn’t sit too well with Cole, who hates the thought of getting beaten by the guy who fixes his toilets. With the help of a campaign manager (Rip Torn), he launches an all-out assault on the election. Handy, somewhat of a nebbish, finds himself fighting back.

The strong point of Welcome to Mooseport is its odd-couple casting. Hackman and Romano play variations of their public personas (brilliant-but-cantankerous and nice-guy mensch, respectively). When I heard they’d be sharing the screen, I automatically found myself looking forward to the film. That sort of unusual pairing often produces a little spark of magic. Both actors are quite good in their roles, and it’s hard not to smile when you see them standing next to each other.

To a degree, the movie coasts by on the strength of the pairing. The laughs contained in the film usually come from the way Hackman and Romano play off each other. And although they play rivals, there is an inherent gentleness to the story. It’s not a mean-spirited comedy. In fact, it’s just the opposite. You can almost imagine this movie being made in the 1950’s, save for the references to modern life. There is something undoubtedly appealing about a good-natured non-grossout comedy aimed at adults.

Despite having some fondness for it, I have to say that Welcome to Mooseport largely misses the mark. It suffers from some fundamental story problems that it can never overcome. First, there appears to be a crucial scene missing. Right after Cole accepts the invitation to run (believing he will be running unopposed), we discover that Handy is also planning to run. (Handy offers to step down, then rescinds after Cole starts making googly eyes with Sally.) So why was Handy running in the first place? There’s never a scene in which he is asked to run, or in which he expresses a previous desire to seek office. In the context of the story, that’s a major plot hole. It feels like something has been left out. It would have been different had Handy made his bid solely to take down his romantic rival. Having an unexplained backstory just adds confusion.

A bigger problem is that the film really has nothing to say about politics. There’s no insight here, no satire, no spoof. The biggest political joke is that Cole takes the campaign as seriously as he took the one for the presidency. If there was some kind of idea at work here – or at least a deliberate satirical target – it would have been easier to invest in the movie. Then there’s the ending, which revolves around who wins and how many votes he won by. All I’ll say is that, despite one character’s assertion that “I won”, the results are mathematically impossible.

This is one of those pictures that splits me right down the middle. It’s pleasant and inoffensive, yet I couldn’t help feeling that it could have been so much more. I didn’t dislike Welcome to Mooseport; I just didn’t like it enough.

( 1/2 out of four)

Welcome to Mooseport is rated PG-13 for some brief sexual comments and nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 47 minutes.

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