Welcome to Mooseport

In a small, quaint, Maine town called Mooseport, the local community is preparing for a big arrival: the former president of the United States, Monroe Cole (Gene Hackman). Hoping to begin his post-presidential life of speaking tours and book deals, Cole learns that the town is in dire need of a new mayor, and he is the best possible candidate. Looking to change his PR luck after a brutal divorce from the first lady (Christine Baranski, of course), Cole agrees to run. He soon learns that another candidate has stepped forward: a local hardware store owner named Handy Harrison (Ray Romano). When Harrison finds out who he’s running against, he panics and drops out. But when Cole makes a play for Harrison’s girlfriend, Sally (Maura Tierney), Harrison plunges back into the race, irritating Cole in what should be an easy victory for the ex-president.

If “Welcome to Mooseport” manages to arouse any curiosity, it will focus on comedian Ray Romano’s move up from the small screen to ride his first feature film to yet unknown box office figures. Romano is a genuinely funny man, having found himself a gigantic star due to the success of CBS’s “Everybody Loves Raymond.” If “Mooseport” is any indication of things to come, the sitcom star’s future in feature films is looking less like Robin Williams, and a whole lot more like Kelsey Grammer.

“Mooseport” is a desperate, generic comedy that doesn’t produce a single laugh in its 105 minute running time. Not one. Glance at the cast list (which also includes Edward Herrmann, Rip Torn, Fred Savage, and a bet-she-wishes-she-didn’t-say-yes-to-this-given-her-recent-Academy-Award-nomination Marcia Gay Harden as Cole’s PR assistant), and it would make sense that something interesting could be found in all the star power. “Mooseport” opens up with a shot of a naked man running down the main street of the town, and that promise of quality is kept throughout the rest of the film, dipping even further in a scene which Harrison confronts Sally about the type of underwear she‘s going to wear on an upcoming date with Cole. Perpetually unimaginative director Donald Petrie (“Miss Congeniality,” “Grumpy Old Men,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days“) fails to demonstrate any inventiveness with this tale. And the endless “Northern Exposure” rip-off scenes and obvious casting (again, the one-note Christine Baranski) make one wonder why they didn’t just send this to television, as the lack of surprises and cinematic scope are a much better match for the small screen. It’s not the inflexible formula that bothers me in “Mooseport,” but the lack of effort on everybody’s part to give life to this lifeless movie.

And Ray Romanor Well, he’s not going to stray too far from his well-known persona just yet. Handy is Ray without the three camera set up. Romano doesn’t push himself too hard in “Mooseport,” which is right for a first starring role. But placed up against the ferocious (and atypically loose) Hackman, and Romano seems a little out of his league. I have faith in the comic, and in his ability to get laughs, but this motion picture was a lousy way to launch his career on the silver screen.

Rating: D