If Ray Romano and Gene Hackman ever went head to head in real life, Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees's money would be on Hackman. Romano has the age advantage, but Hackman is a sneaky son of a gun.
This town isn't small enough for the both of them.
Comedian Ray Romano, who has gained so much recognition and success in the title role of his sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, makes his first venture onto the big screen. Is he successful at separating himself from the role of Ray Barone, which he has inhabited for so many years? Or is this small-screen actor doomed to the big-screen mediocrity that has dogged so many stars of other popular sitcoms (cough*Friends*cough)? I could keep you in suspense, but the neighborly spirit of the little town of Mooseport has mellowed me. Romano does just fine, and both he and the film Welcome to Mooseport should win over any skeptics.
Facts of the Case
Beloved former U.S. president Monroe "the Eagle" Cole (Gene Hackman, The Royal Tenenbaums) retires to the sleepy little Maine hamlet of Mooseport, intent on relaxing with the newspaper and raking in a few million with the occasional lecture tour. His plans are disrupted, however, when he responds to an appeal from his new hometown to run for the position of mayor. After consulting with devoted executive secretary Grace (Marcia Gay Harden, Casa de los Babys) and handler Bullard (Fred Savage, The Wonder Years), he agrees—only to find that he is not running unopposed. Genial Mooseport resident Harold "Handy" Harrison, plumber and owner of the local hardware store, has also responded to the community's cry for help.
The Eagle can't back out; what would that do to his public image, and therefore his sources of income? Handy has no wish to compete with the former president, but he's also nettled when his longtime girlfriend, comely veterinarian Sally (Maura Tierney, E.R.) accepts the Eagle's dinner invitation. Clearly the election is no longer only about politics, but about her favors as well. The stakes are raised when Cole's vengeful ex-wife (Christine Baranski, Bowfinger) arrives to campaign on Handy's behalf, and Cole mistakenly assumes that Handy is behind this dastardly alliance. From that point on, Cole and his ruthless advisor Bert Langdon (Rip Torn, Men in Black) will resort to every political weapon in his mighty arsenal to defeat Handy. And Handy, who only wants to do the right thing and win back his mysteriously distant girlfriend, seems ill equipped for the kind of political warfare that is second nature to the Eagle.
The advertising campaign for Welcome to Mooseport led me to expect a quirky Northern Exposure-style comedy. Instead, the tone of Mooseport is more gentle and laid-back, akin to the atmosphere of Groundhog Day. (The resemblance may have suggested itself to me in part because of the device of using radio personality voiceovers as a device for providing exposition and commentary on the action.) There are belly laughs, to be sure, but a lot of the humor is an undercurrent inherent in the situations themselves: a cadre of government suits standing out like pinstriped sore thumbs amid the comfortable flannel-clad townies, or the former president's quiet little dinner date being accompanied by popping flash bulbs and heckling journalists. There are lots of colorful locals, including a nude jogger and Handy's outspoken employees, but the general atmosphere of Mooseport is one of Norman Rockwell-esque Americana (a similarity enhanced by the costume designer, who duplicates for the cast clothing styles featured in Rockwell's own work).
As the action progressed, I was reminded more and more of Frank Capra films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life. Like these warmhearted classics, Mooseport presents us with a humble everyman whose simple small-town values carry the day despite the cynicism of the more sophisticated, worldly characters. The score by John Debney plays up the all-American motif with mock-heroic musical cues and selections from John Philip Sousa, and the prominence of that most sedate of sports, golf, adds to the feeling of a world governed by traditional standards. Despite the seeming familiarity of the formula, however, there are some refreshing surprises: Handy may not be the ruthless political type, but he has a trick or two up his sleeve, so it turns out that, for all their differences in tactics, he and the Eagle are pretty evenly matched as opponents in politics and romance. It's enjoyable to watch the two characters play off each other, and this is due as much to the effective partnership of Romano and Hackman as it is to the charms of the story.
Indeed, a large part of Mooseport's appeal is its stellar cast. Starting at the pinnacle, Gene Hackman is, as ever, spot-on. He is completely convincing as a politician, but he enhances the character with a twinkle that hints to us that, underneath the trappings of power, he's a likable guy. For that reason, we can understand why long-suffering Grace is in love with him and puts up with his egotism. His Achilles' heel—his ongoing war with his ex-wife—also reassures us that he's human and shows that he isn't impervious to the frustrations of real life. Hackman's onscreen authority, his ability to effortlessly command, is put to perfect use in this role; it's ideal casting. Yin to his yang, Romano as Handy comes across as the regular guy we all know and like, the well-meaning sort who really would like to be able to make the big romantic or political gesture but gets tongue-tied and loses confidence. At first, I admit, I found it difficult to see through Romano to Handy himself, simply because I'm so accustomed to Romano's television persona. Once I got past that short-lived obstacle, however, I found that Romano gives an excellent performance. He is an ideal choice for the role of the average Joe, evoking our sympathy and our liking. According to the director's commentary, Romano deliberately chose to make Handy a man who is completely incapable of telling a joke, and just that one character trait captures his character beautifully: He's funny because he goofs up when he tries to be funny. We pity his awkwardness, but we're drawn to him because of it. I'd say that, judging from Mooseport, Romano doesn't need to worry about his career stalling once Everybody Loves Raymond goes off the air, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he does once he ventures farther away from his TV roots (such as in his role in the upcoming independent film Eulogy).
As the two female leads, Marcia Gay Harden and Maura Tierney are also perfect for their roles. Harden has proven her versatility in a wide variety of parts, and I have yet to see her give a bad performance; as Grace, who has waited patiently for the president to notice how much she loves him, she takes what could be a bland character and gives her a spine—as well as a streak of cunning. Maura Tierney, a standout in her television work, is just as natural and convincing on the big screen. We sympathize with her Sally even when she's giving Handy a hard time. Tierney has a slight weariness to her eyes that works well here, as if every time she looks at Handy she's remembering the six years during which she has waited for him to propose. Christine Baranski is, as always, a howl, and I only wish we got to see her and Hackman act together more: They strike sparks from each other in an exhilarating way.
The low-key quality of the film is sustained through the visuals, which are attractive in a nonthreatening way but don't jump out and grab the viewer. The quality of the transfer seems fine but not outstanding, although in one scene some notable flicker appears. Likewise, the aural landscape is adequate but unexciting; this is not a film that really exploits surround sound. The extras stand out a bit more: There are two versions of a Norwegian car commercial, unseen in the film, that Bullard tries to persuade Cole to appear in; this comes closer to outright satire than anything in the film itself. There is a brief but enjoyable outtake reel, as well as six deleted or extended scenes with the option of commentary from director Donald Petrie (Miss Congeniality). Here as in his feature commentary, Petrie's remarks are largely limited to praising the actors, identifying lines that Romano added to the script, and noting when actors are improvising. To judge by Petrie's comments, so much of the film's dialogue was added by Romano or improvised that one wonders what shape the screenplay was in when it was greenlighted. Evidently we can thank Romano and his skilled fellow actors for the film in its final form. (And don't miss the deleted material in which Marcia Gay Harden's Grace explains why she doesn't play golf.)
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Welcome to Mooseport may well be one of those quiet little movies that finds its true home on video, but it will probably be a bit too quiet for some. If you're in the mood for energetic or aggressively screwball fare, Mooseport may seem hopelessly slow and bland to you. Here's a tip: Wait until you're in a Jimmy Stewart mood, not a Farrelly brothers one, to watch this. Then you'll be giving Mooseport a fair chance at winning you over.
As wholesome as apple pie, with the same combination of sweetness and tartness, Welcome to Mooseport is a satisfying slice of Americana. Treat yourself to a purchase if you're a Hackman fan; otherwise, you may wish to give it a taste test with a rental.
How could any court that convenes under the good ol' stars and stripes find Welcome to Mooseport guilty? Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
• Feature Commentary by Director Donald Petrie
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