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Hackman can't quite save ‘Mooseport’

Ray Romano and Gene Hackman star in this lame political satire. By John Hartl

Something must have convinced Marcia Gay Harden and Gene Hackman that  “Welcome to Mooseport” was worth their time. One hates to think they did it just for the money, though by the time this choppy movie lurches toward the two-hour mark, few other conclusions seem possible.

The plot outline suggests a 1940s Preston Sturges comedy; perhaps that was the chief attraction. Or maybe it was the fact that the screenwriter, Tom Schulman, once won an Academy Award (for “Dead Poets Society”). Or maybe they had faith in the director, Donald Petrie, who made one passable film (“Mystic Pizza”) more than a decade ago.

Hackman plays Monroe “Eagle” Cole, a popular American President who retires to Mooseport, a small Maine town where he can work on his memoirs and continue his court battles with a greedy ex-First Lady (Christine Baranski), dubbed “the wicked witch of the West Wing.”

But when the citizens convince him to run for mayor, Cole finds himself competing with Handy Harrison (Ray Romano), the astoundingly passive local hardware store owner. Cole is also pursuing Harrison’s neglected girlfriend (Maura Tierney), though it’s obvious that Cole’s longtime aide (Marcia Gay Harden) has been in love with him for years.

Guess who ends up with whom. Yes, the outcome is just as uninteresting as Romano’s ultra-vanilla performance as the town nebbish. He gives essentially the same performance he gives every week on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” and it’s just as easy to doze off while watching him do it on the big screen. Perhaps easier, because he has so much more time to waste.

Supporting players don't have much to do
Baranski is raring to go as the golddigging ex-wife, but when she turns up in Mooseport to push for Harrison’s election, she’s stranded with almost nothing to do. Fred Savage, one-time child star of “The Wonder Years,” tries to make an impression as Cole’s frustrated PR director, who desperately wants a Pentagon job — or any way out of Mooseport.

That the movie is borderline-watchable is due almost entirely to Hackman and Harden. He’s in the mood for farce, and even though the script doesn’t give him many reasons to pursue that goal, he milks some laughs from a rigged golfing contest and a first date with Tierney that gets a ridiculous amount of media coverage. His thwarted attempts to woo her provide the movie’s only belly laugh.

At her slyest, Harden doesn’t give away her character’s feelings until it’s absolutely necessary, plot-wise. For much of the film, it’s possible to see her character as a devoted professional who’s especially good on details, like picking up on the small-town nuances that everyone else misses. She does it because it’s her job; only gradually does it become clear that she does it because she adores Cole.

“Welcome to Mooseport” doesn’t dare to be topical at all. Compared with Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” and The Sundance Channel’s reruns of “Tanner,” it’s a pathetic attempt at political satire. See it only if you can’t get enough of Harden and Hackman.