Ten Years Later: Welcome to Mooseport

I guarantee you we would not be talking about Welcome to Mooseport ten years later if Gene Hackman had made one more movie. Just one. Heck, if Runaway Jury had come out a few months later, that could be the mediocre movie we lament as Gene Hackman’s last film. Hackman is still retired, and release dates being what they are, Welcome to Mooseport came out 10 years ago today.

I also can’t believe I have now watched this movie three times in my life, although the second time was my own fault. I covered the press junket and hated the movie then, but then I was on a cruise ship where it was playing on one of the movie channels. We had the TV turned on while we were getting ready for dinner, and by the time we were ready it was over and I said, “I can’t believe I just watched that movie I hated all the way to the end.”

So, how did this happen? Hackman did as well in comedy as dramas: The Birdcage, Get Shorty, The Royal Tenenbaums, and let’s not forget Young Frankenstein. Director Donald Petrie was coming off hits Miss Congeniality and How to Lose A Guy in 10 Days. Ray Romano was on a successful television show that assured us everybody loved him. It had a wacky title, so it seemed like a reasonable package for a comedy.

Hackman plays former president Monroe “Eagle” Cole who moves to Mooseport to retire. While settling in he decides to run for mayor and romantically pursue local veterinarian Sally Mannis (Maura Tierney). However, he wasn’t aware Sally was already seeing town plumber Handy Harrison (Romano) who was also planning on running for mayor. So it’s big politics versus small town naïveté, and the town is called Mooseport! Can you believe that name?

This is the kind of movie I imagine old people say is delightful, because there’s nothing offensive in it, but there’s also nothing good in it. As vaguely funny as the premise may be, the movie does not explore it for any comedic potential. It just coasts by making sure nothing provocative happens. Only I would be wrong about anyone finding it delightful because it was not a hit. No large portion of any demographic lifted Mooseport ahead at the box office.

But this is Ten Years Later so let me offer you some retrospective analysis. The wacky hijinks of Mooseport include a naked jogger on whom nobody comments because “small towns,” Monroe cheats at golf, Handy’s dog humps Monroe’s dog, Monroe tries to go vegetarian to impress Sally only it’s revealed she actually eats meat. Monroe says something won’t happen unless donkeys fly, and then he immediately sees a helicopter transporting a donkey. There’s some mild slapstick on the part of Romano, mainly that Sally is so strong she pushes him over all the time.

One bit that made me smile, if not laugh, is when Monroe leans in for a kiss and Sally offers a handshake instead. The physical timing is good, it’s a relatable uncomfortable moment, and it’s replayed to further the discomfort. That was a solid bit. The only one in the movie.

Politically, Welcome to Mooseport is hardly satire. It exposes the corrupt underbelly of memoir ghostwriters, Monroe starting a media circus that’s not really invasive, and bragging about building a bigger presidential library than Clinton. Monroe tells his security detail to break someone’s legs and they take him seriously, so he calls after them to make sure they know he was kidding. Get it? Because Secret Service? I don’t know.

This really could have been a scathing political satire, with a president treating a small town mayoral election like the national office. He never really escalates it though, and the film makes a clear decision not to go dark. Handy’s innocence thwarts Eagle’s politics. Every strategy Eagle comes up with is countered not with political counterstrategy, but just good-natured townieness. When faced with low polls, Eagle plans to endorse Handy for mayor, thus endearing him to the town. At the same time, Handy sincerely says Mooseport can’t pass up the opportunity to have a former president run the town. Cute, but the satire never goes further.

Romantically, Mooseport tells the story of a woman waiting for a man to propose, only he doesn’t get the hint because he’s content with their relationship as it is. Maybe it’s supposed to be endearing that Handy is so oblivious. Certainly the film needs a plot device so the audience condones her dating two men at once. At best, it’s the tired old cliché of “why won’t you men commit?” At worst, and more likely, it’s a contrived plot device to make sure Handy makes a big romantic gesture at the end.

Clearly, I do not like this movie, but the thing is, watching it for yet a third time, I still don’t think it’s good, but I don’t mind it so much anymore. Maybe that’s why I ended up watching it on my cruise. It looks like a movie, it moves like a movie, it’s not funny but it’s good-natured, as in there’s nothing mean in it. God, have I become the guy who thinks it’s delightful? Well, I’m not that far gone yet, but I can see how it’s working structurally to eat away at the time in a pseudo-entertaining fashion without actually providing the entertainment.

I don’t know why Hackman didn’t work again. It was probably his choice. I mean, let the man enjoy his retirement. He could come back any time he wants and directors would love to have him.

Also interesting, Welcome to Mooseport was the first and last movie that tried to make Ray Romano a leading man. It made sense. After a successful sitcom, he should be doing movies. Voicing the Ice Age movies doesn’t count, or at least it would count more if he had successful live-action movies in between. But, Welcome to Mooseport wasn’t a hit and no one ever tried Romano as a romantic comedic lead ever again. He did some indie movies, since any actor would want to stretch a little, but he did a movie with Kevin James that went straight to video. It’s weird no one thought Mr. “Everybody Loves Raymond” could carry movies. He’s certainly not the problem with Mooseport.

I guess Jerry Seinfeld, Debra Messing and the non-Aniston Friends didn’t make it in movies either, but it’s not unheard of. Tim Allen, Michael J. Fox, maybe Ted Danson briefly in the Three Men movies, and I guess that’s it. Hmm, maybe long running sitcoms are no guarantee. Neither Roseanne, Ellen Degeneres, Harry Anderson, nor Bronson Pinchot had hit movies. Speaking of Bronson Pinchot, John Larroquette had a decent run in a few comedies including Second Sight, co-starring Pinchot, which reminds me his Madhouse costar Kirstie Alley did a bunch of hits too, at least in the Look Who’s Talking franchise. So there are definitely no guarantees, but Romano could have gotten one more at bat.

IMDB states that Rod Lurie was the original director of Welcome to Mooseport. I confirmed with Lurie that he was the original director, but left the project for undisclosed reasons. When he was attached, Lurie said he wanted to cast Dustin Hoffman as the president. So if that version of Welcome to Mooseport happened, Runaway Jury would have been Gene Hackman’s last movie. Would that be any easier to fathom? I don’t think so. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.