By Chris Barsanti | February 21, 2004

Never quite worth a guffaw, but far from unwatchable, “Welcome to Mooseport” is about as middle-of-the-road as comedies get – and in this criminally unfunny movie season, that’s about as much as one can ask for, sadly enough. In a shrewd career move, Ray Romano here plays Harold “Handy” Harrison, a schlub living in the small town of Mooseport, Maine, as opposed to his TV persona, a schlub who lives in Long Island. Handy – who’s the town handyman, natch – has been dating Sally Mannis (Maura Tierney) for six years and isn’t even close to proposing. This leaves Handy in a bad situation when ex-president Monroe Cole (Gene Hackman) moves to town and asks Sally out on a date. In a bid to get Sally back, Handy decides to toss his hat in the ring of the town’s mayoral election, which originally was going to be an uncontested and largely ceremonial affair for Monroe.
At that point, in most screwball comedies, which this has the initial trappings of, this is when the hijinks would begin. “Mooseport,” however, is not exactly screwball, and not exactly sentimental, but an uneasy and uncertain mix of the two. Thus, we have a scene in which Monroe and Handy fight it out in true slapstick fashion after a debate, but that’s about it as far as physical comedy is concerned. Most of the humor comes from watching Handy’s rather sad and insecure attempts to win Sally’s heart and from seeing just how fast this tiny little election causes Monroe (referred to multiple times as “the most popular president in history”) to slide into undignified ignominy.
There’s a slew of underwhelming subplots, from the secret crush that Monroe’s executive secretary (Marcia Gay Harden) has on him, to his continuing fight with his ex-wife (Christine Baranski), that are only saved from being total bores by the strength of the oddly A-list supporting cast, especially Harden and Rip Torn, who plays an icy operative brought in to secure the election. Romano plays his usual shambolic self, and the natural frisson that comes from putting him up against an old pro like Hackman, squeezes a few laughs out of what is ultimately a pretty tepid script. That the story is nothing special shouldn’t be surprising, considering that the director, Donald Petrie, is responsible for two of the more generic (and strangely successful) “comedies” of recent years: Miss Congeniality and “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” but even those movies had moments where they went for the big funny, something that “Mooseport” never bothers doing. It says enough that one of the big showdowns between Monroe and Handy is on a golf course.
A host of good, even great, actors, doing their best with comfortably bland material that’s tricked out with a few moments of forced, “Northern Exposure”-esque quirkiness – good enough to get by, but nothing.
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