Maine event: Retiring president v. plumber

Maine is famous for two things: Stephen King and everything else. Welcome to Mooseport isn't likely to change that.

This election-year comedy about an election would have been run-of-the-mill Hollywood fare half a century ago, when it probably would have starred Henry Fonda and James Stewart. Today it seems as if it would be more at home on television, in part because several of its actors are better known in that medium: Ray Romano ("Everybody Loves Raymond"), Maura Tierney ("ER," "NewsRadio"), Christine Baranski ("Cybill") and Fred Savage ("The Wonder Years").

Thus it's appropriate that a real movie star should play the outsider in the community. (Well, Baranski's an outsider too, but don't mess with my premise.) Gene Hackman stars as Monroe "Eagle" Cole, who's retiring to his Maine vacation home (Baranski, his ex-wife, took everything else) after two terms as President of the United States.

We're told Cole was a very popular president, but we're given no hint of his party affiliation. All the same, the idea of a president retiring sounds good to me right about now.

On the day President Cole arrives, Mooseport's mayor-for-life dies. The town council invites the newest resident to take the job, but a surprise candidate challenges him: Harold "Handy" Harrison (Romano), who owns the local hardware store and does plumbing on the side.

It seems the men have another rivalry going. Mr. President has flirted with veterinarian Sally Mannis (Tierney), not knowing she's been going with Handy for six years. Handy is unaware that Sally's finally understood what they say about men not buying the cow when they can get the milk for free; she's tired of being taken for granted.

(If it bothers you that Hackman is almost twice Tierney's age, there's also a nubile young woman about half Romano's age who's ready to throw herself at Handy. Does that balance things?)

The script by Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society) is a model of efficiency in the way it sets up the situation, but is less impressive in where it goes from there. It's obvious that Grace (Marcia Gay Harden), the President's long-suffering assistant, is in love with him; so we mark time until he realizes it.

The Eagle's team also includes Savage as whipping boy, and a couple of visible secret service agents, with several more in reserve for important jobs like cheating at golf. Campaign Manager Rip Torn comes up to assist as the Maine event becomes national news.

Mooseport has the requisite number of colorful residents, including a guy who jogs naked down Main Street. Some are more interesting than others, but all wear thin before the movie's over.

Most of the actors are overqualified for their roles, so the question mark is Romano. It took him some years to earn respect as a television actor when he moved over from stand-up comedy, and it will probably take as long for him to establish himself as a movie actor– if it ever happens. It will certainly take more than what he does here.

Some of Hackman's funniest moments are when Cole compares himself to Clinton in terms of speaking fees and the size of their libraries. Baranski is appropriately over the top as the woman he calls "The Wicked Witch of the West Wing." As former first ladies go, she makes Sherry on "24" look like Mother Teresa.

Director Donald Petrie (Mystic Pizza) is unable to find the right balance between the small, whimsical story this really is and the overblown, overlong epic it needs to be to justify its budget, let alone the price of admission. You should find it more entertaining when it reaches your home screen.