Movie review: 'Welcome to Mooseport '

EntertainmentMoviesElectionsMaura TierneyChristine BaranskiDonald PetrieMinority Groups

3 stars (out of 4)

The moose of "Welcome to Mooseport" never passes gas, suffers a digestive-system malfunction or does a cute double-take. It's a small victory, but we'll take it.The movie itself represents a low-key triumph as well. It belongs to an increasingly rare breed: civilized comedies - that is, ones that feature adults in situations that have nothing to do with their sex lives, regressive behavior or how they look doing the Full Monty (though the whimsical world of "Mooseport" does include a naked elderly jogger).

Driving this action is a not-too-violent but plenty messy collision of characters with varying agendas. Monroe "Eagle" Cole (Gene Hackman), one of the most popular U.S. presidents in history, has just left office and is moving to the title Maine coastal town, where he maintains a vacation home that he wants to keep out of the clutches of his newly ex-wife, Charlotte (Christine Baranski).

Eagle's plan is to accept lucrative speaking engagements while overseeing the design of his massive presidential library. (He insists it be bigger than Clinton's.) But when the town's jovial, starstruck leaders ask him to fill an emergency vacancy and become their mayor, he impulsively agrees - in part to impress the appealing, self-possessed local veterinarian, Sally Mannis (Maura Tierney).

Eagle doesn't know that Sally has been dating - and awaiting a ring from - Handy Harrison (Ray Romano), a commitment-phobic hardware store owner. And Eagle doesn't know that Handy has thrown his hat into the mayoral ring as well, also as a would-be favor to the town elders.

Handy initially offers to pull out, but when he realizes the ex-president's amorous intentions, he campaigns for the mayoralty and his girlfriend as if these bids were one and the same.

Directed by comedy journeyman Donald Petrie ("Miss Congeniality") and written by Tom Schulman ("Honey, I Shrunk the Kids"), "Welcome to Mooseport" plays like one of Preston Sturges' small-town farces but without the manic comic edge. Sturges' movies, such as "Hail the Conquering Hero" and "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek," embrace the quirks of the townsfolk even as they're sucked into an accelerating swirl of insanity.

"Welcome to Mooseport" has affection for its characters too, but it moves more with the deliberateness of the sport that unites Eagle and Handy: golf.

That's OK, given that it provides ample laughs and smiles along the way. You'd think by now that Hackman could sleepwalk through Eagle's arrogant self-regard and impatience, yet the veteran actor is such a wily pro that he makes this charming SOB seem fresh and humorously distinct from the other charming SOBs he's played throughout his career.

The casting is canny in another respect. Romano and Tierney are best known for their television roles (on "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "ER," respectively) and thus on the big screen come across as underdogs next to movie star/president Hackman. You root for the TV folks to hold their own, and they do: Romano has a regular-guy appeal while Tierney, who had shone in movies before "ER" came along, proves a worthy love interest for both fellas.

Marcia Gay Harden brings considerable warmth and adult sex appeal to Eagle's loyal, increasingly exasperated secretary. Baranski as the vindictive ex-wife and Rip Torn as Eagle's savvy political strategist are treading more familiar water.

Petrie and Schulman take care in building their unlikely plot, and the laughs follow. Much humor is mined from Eagle's adjustment to civilian life. It's tough to go on an intimate date in a small town or to play golf without your Secret Service agents hiding in the woods to make sure your errant shots take lucky "bounces."

There's also something inherently funny about an ex-president being such a political junkie that he can't help running for small-town mayor.

"Welcome to Mooseport" isn't a belly-laugh farce. It's more along the lines of a "My Cousin Vinny," where you just enjoy almost everybody who crosses the screen. Such a comedy these days is more than welcome.

"Welcome to Mooseport"
Directed by Donald Petrie; written by Tom Schulman; photographed by Victor Hammer; edited by Debra Neil-Fisher; production designed by David Chapman; music by John Debney; produced by Schulman, Basil Iwanyk. A 20th Century Fox release; opens Friday, Feb. 20. Running time: 1:50. MPAA rating: PG-13 (some brief sexual comments and nudity).
Monroe Cole - Gene Hackman
Handy Harrison - Ray Romano
Grace Sutherland - Marcia Gay Harden
Sally Mannis - Maura Tierney
Charlotte Cole - Christine Baranski
Bullard - Fred Savage

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EntertainmentMoviesElectionsMaura TierneyChristine BaranskiDonald PetrieMinority Groups
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