Welcome to Mooseport

on February 20, 2004 by Michael Tunison
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After a taste of box-office gold voicing the mammoth hero of the 2002 animated hit "Ice Age," Ray Romano of TV's "Everybody Loves Raymond" makes his opening run for live-action movie stardom in the small-town election comedy "Welcome to Mooseport." Alas, despite solid backup from the ever-formidable Gene Hackman and others, this routine hiatus schedule-filler proves to be a shaky platform from which to launch the likable Romano's candidacy as a big-screen leading man.

That's a shame, because the picture's basic setup--triggered when an egocentric former U.S. president (Hackman) moves to tiny Mooseport, Maine, in the midst of nasty divorce negotiations--initially shows real promise. Romano is credible enough in befuddled Jimmy Stewart mode as Mooseport fix-it man/Everyman "Handy" Harrison, who, following a series of wacky twists involving his veterinarian girlfriend (Maura Tierney from TV's "ER"), ends up challenging the most popular American prez since JFK in a race to be the town's next mayor.

The ensuing David-and-Goliath contest, accompanied by the requisite national media storm, holds out hopes for a comedy with old-fashioned heart and a stirring reminder or two about our priceless democratic traditions--hopes that are soon dashed as director Donald Petrie (responsible for such limp recent fare as "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" and "Miss Congeniality") steers the story into increasingly awkward, unrewarding directions. Handy's uninspiring apathy about whether or not he wins the race prevents the election thread from building much emotional momentum, while developments such as Handy and the president deciding to settle a half-hearted romantic rivalry over Tierney's character with a game of golf are as ineffective as they are unbelievable.

On the upside, the male leads are notably well supported by their female co-stars, "Mystic River's" unstoppable Marcia Gay Harden (as the president's less-cynical right-hand woman) and the refreshingly real Tierney, who salvages the ending of the picture with an unexpectedly strong climactic moment. Starring Gene Hackman, Ray Romano, Marcia Gay Harden, Maura Tierney, Christine Baranski and Rip Torn. Directed by Donald Petrie. Written by Tom Schulman. Produced by Tom Schulman and Basil Iwanyk. A Fox release. Comedy. Rated PG-13 for some brief sexual comments and nudity. Running time: 110 min

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