- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2004

“Everybody Loves Raymond’s” Ray Romano looks out of place starring in the big-screen comedy “Welcome to Mooseport.”

No, it’s not that television stars can’t make the switch to motion pictures. “Mooseport’s” own Maura Tierney toils away on NBC’s “ER” every week, and her vulnerable sexuality belongs on any screen lucky enough to have her.

What makes Mr. Romano’s transition so awkward is the match between material and talent.

On “Raymond,” Mr. Romano’s economy of gestures makes the frustrations of married existence spring to comic life. In “Mooseport,” the one-dimensional small town he inhabits needs an outsized persona to sell the stale gags.

“Mooseport” deserves a Jim Carrey type, someone who can manufacture laughs where none exist on the page.

The comedy casts Mr. Romano as an earnest handyman unwilling to pop the question to his sweetheart, Sally (Miss Tierney). Their status quo gets rattled when an ex-president (Gene Hackman) decides to settle down in their beloved Mooseport.

All President Cole wants to do is kick back and collect the occasional lecture fee. The sudden death of the town’s mayor alters the political landscape. The grieving citizens turn to the ex-president to fill the job.

And why not? The avuncular Cole can burnish his legacy without any heavy lifting — and make time with lovely townsfolk such as Sally at the same time.

Not so fast, says “Handy” Harrison (Mr. Romano), who inexplicably throws his hat in the ring and later decides to keep it there when he sees Cole flirting with Sally.

Before you can say recount, the two sides are sniping away at each other along the streets of Mooseport. Every time Cole thinks he’s got the upper hand, Handy’s bumbling manner somehow tightens the race.

No one should blame Mr. Romano for trying his fortunes on film. It’s just a shame that his first major effort — he provided a key voice for 2002’s wonderful “Ice Age” — suffers from the kind of wan writing you too often see in sitcoms.

As with “Raymond,” the comedian’s supporting players are first rate. Marcia Gay Harden adds class to the film as President Cole’s dutiful handler. Rip Torn, Christine Baranski and Fred Savage all turn in yeoman’s work in smaller but colorful parts.

And could anyone play Cole with such delicious pomposity as Mr. Hackman? One of the greater crimes of modern cinema is how often the Oscar winner pops up in mediocre projects.

Director Donald Petrie (“Miss Congeniality,” “Grumpy Old Men”) knows his way around middling comedies, which by unwritten law demand an abundance of reaction shots that take the place of canned laughter.

More depressing is how the film’s unintentional scorn for small-town living reverberates through every scene. Daily chores are interrupted each morning as citizens continually wish each other a hearty “good morning.”

It’s a wonder they have time to get any work done.

To the film’s production team, the term “small town” translates into lots of flannel shirts and being humbled by the trappings of big-city life.

What the film nails in several funny sequences is the modern marriage between politics and gossip. Watching camera crews capture President Cole’s date with Sally — and the subsequent media spin after she rebuffs his goodnight kiss — is the kind of stinging satire we sorely need.

“Welcome to Mooseport” wants to be a smart comedy with a romantic heart beating underneath the patter. But given the charisma deficit between its leads, audiences will be rooting for the avuncular president, not our local hero, to get the girl and the best punch lines.


WHAT: “Welcome to Mooseport”

RATING: PG-13 (Slapstick violence, sexually suggestive material and coarse language)

CREDITS: Directed by Donald Petrie. Written by Tom Schulman.

RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes

WEB SITE: www.welcometomooseport.com


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