The best moment in WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT comes when former president Monroe Eagle Cole (Gene Hackman) comes to visit his rival in the mayoral race in Mooseport, Maine, Handy Harrison (Ray Romano) at the latters hardware store. As he prepares to step into Harrisons ramshackle office for a private chat, the secret service agent doing the preliminary sweep reports back that there will be an iguana on his left. And there is, sunning itself on a stack of old magazines under a florescent table lamp. Its a pithy distillation of big-time politics running roughshod over local politicking and if the rest of the film kept that throwaway, observational tone wed have something here. Unfortunately, it doesnt and we dont.
Cole is in Mooseport after leaving office with the highest popularity numbers in history and losing pretty much everything else he owns in a messy divorce from his acerbic ex-First Lady (Christine Baranksi). Looking to enhance his post-presidential earning potential beyond that of Bill Clinton, with whom he has a competition going, he sees running unopposed for mayor as just the ticket. Until he finds out that Harrison filed to run, too, without knowing whom hed be running against. That Cole asks out Sally (Maura Tierney), Harrisons plucky long-time girlfriend whos gotten tired of waiting for a marriage proposal, makes the race personal. That the polls put them dead even and Cole losing could cost him a bundle in speaking tours and book deals, not to mention prestige, just adds fuel to the fire of the election and that competition with Clinton that I mentioned before. I think this is the part where sparks were supposed to fly, but, alas, this film never catches fire. Its as overwhelmed by the underdone script as Harrison is when Cole brings in his veteran campaign manager (Rip Torn) and they spend millions to win the election to compete with Harrisons mimeographed handouts.
Romano is fine as Harrison. He understands his limits as an actor and gives us pretty much the same sweet if self-absorbed character he plays on his sitcom. Hackman, too, is good, but while we are told that Cole is a man of principle, we are shown the spin, not the substance. Given that this is something we all suspect about politicians, its way, way to heavy-handed for this type of flick. This is a guy for whom winning is everything, whether an election or the square-footage of his presidential library, and who draws the limit at hawking cars in Norway and pretty much nothing else. Hes just unpleasant, making the goo-goo eyes his super-smooth chief-of-staff (Marcia Gay Harden) throws his way unsettling, even with her speech about how she has always believed in him, flaws and all. Baranski, as the money-grubbing banshee of an ex-wife in couture and spike heels, plays it the way she plays all her roles, arch and brittle.
What should have been an amiable if unremarkable comedy never rises much above the chuckle level as it attempts to pay homage to the eccentricity of small town life with a mix of metaphors that includes The Andy Griffith Show, Newhart, and Northern Exposure without ever quite capturing what it was that made any of those shows tick. The town moose, Bruce, the certifiable town council, and the repeat performance of the towns aged naked jogger notwithstanding. Sure, theres something adorable about an ex-president striking out on his first date with the local girl as a phalanx of national press captures every moment, but those moments are few and far between. And even the best of them dont warrant the price of admission to WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT.