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Photograph by Kerry Hayes

You Must Be the Guy Who Sucks: Gene Hackman shakes hands with unworthy adversary Ray Romano in 'Welcome to Mooseport.'

Wild Moose Chase

If only the producers of 'Welcome to Mooseport' could have nabbed a co-star who could match wits with Gene Hackman

By Steve Palopoli

You know, I never watched Everybody Loves Raymond. And now I remember why. When you're talking about what's wrong with Welcome to Mooseport, you're really talking about Ray Romano, the man who puts the "bla" back in "bland." The man who never met a half-assed comic delivery he didn't like. The man who inexplicably was signed to go head to head with Gene Hackman in this movie.

Now, I'm not saying the rest of Welcome to Mooseport is great. The premise--former president Hackman comes to small town and gets in a tizzy with handyman Romano over a woman and a mayoral race--isn't bad, though I'm probably pointing out the obvious to say it was basically lifted from The Simpsons' famous "Homer vs. George Bush" episode. And I certainly don't have to tell anyone that that episode kicks this movie's ass, but I digress. This movie's writing is mediocre in the most mediocre way, and worst of all, it suffers from that uniquely Hollywood folly of making movies about fictional small towns that are so glossy, slick and clichéd they bear no resemblance to any actual small towns. In fact, Welcome to Mooseport scripter Tom Schulman (who was also behind duds like Medicine Man and 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag) seems to have gotten his understanding of small towns from a fuzzy memory of Northern Exposure episodes he watched years ago, and maybe that Julia Roberts flick where she tries and fails to pretend she works in a hardware store. Welcome to Mooseport's barely concealed contempt for the small-town lifestyle it supposedly celebrates is equaled only by its completely overt contempt for political culture, which is of course defined here by Secret Service agents who never smile and help the president cheat at golf, and the occasional slimy campaign manager. As for the media--well! Don't even get this movie started!

But even with all of that stupid stuff, Welcome to Mooseport could have been a lot better with a foil who could go toe-to-toe with Hackman. 'Cause let me tell you, almost as if I needed to: that guy is a freakin' genius. Evidence of his comic genius in particular was already proven once again pretty recently in The Royal Tenenbaums, where he was just one of many fascinating things going on. Here, he's pretty much it. And yet, this movie is still almost worth it at times, just to see him nail every line, every gesture, every glance. As termed-out President Monroe Eagle Cole, he snatches hilarity from the jaws of mediocrity over and over again, nailing just the right mix of arrogance, buffoonery, irony and sincerity. How does he do it? I mean, even that little evil laugh that goes on forever. Perfect.

If the producers of Mooseport could have nabbed a co-star who could really stand up to him, this movie would have been a riot. I wouldn't even have cared that it was the kind of movie that makes old ladies say naughty things in a desperate attempt for a laugh.

And believe me, I understand that Romano was undoubtedly their 20th choice. Like every script, this went through the A-list of actors who could conceivably play this part, from George Clooney to Bruce Willis. Probably the novelty value of this being Romano's first film made him look a little better, even. But we're talking about a guy whose "everyman" routine is really more like "everyschmuck"--I honestly found it hard to even root for him, though the movie is begging you to at every turn.

And when he does score--as in a debate which supposedly points out how he's more clued in to the small-town lifestyle--the pretense is so hackneyed and fake you have to wonder if anyone involved with this movie has ever even been to a town hall meeting. Wouldn't it have been funnier to parody how even a small-town has an unexpected amount of bureaucracy and excruciating political minutiae? You don't even need to have sat through a Santa Cruz City Council meeting to have a good laugh about that.

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From the February 25-March 3, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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