Seldom over the course of a relatively storied career has Gene Hackman garnered sustained laughter in films billed as comedies. He's wonderous at playing virtuous or wicked, paternal or pissed off, but never quite comfortable in the role of comedian. He may be an actor of uncommon range, able to communicate anger and empathy within a single breath, but on most occasions, he can no more make you chuckle than he can make you fly.
There are, of course, the delightful exceptions. Among the fastidious neurotics and willful eccentrics in Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, Hackman's malingering patriarch drew broad grins by being the most recognizably human (that is, loathsome and flawed, but nonetheless well-intentioned) character on the screen in every scene in which he appeared and in every scene with which he absconded. He was affably wicked as Lex Luthor in the first two Superman movies, unusually broad as the blind hermit in Young Frankenstein, dizzily game as the punching bag in Get Shorty and just plain funny in The Birdcage. But even a sleeping man gets a chuckle every now and then, perhaps just by making a funny noise, and for every triumph, there is an All Night Long or Loose Cannons or The Replacements to remind audiences that Hackman can be to laughs what exterminators are to bugs.
All of this assumes, by the way, that Welcome to Mooseport, in which Hackman plays a former U.S. president running for small-town mayor, is intended to be a comedy; that hypothesis is a generous leap of faith, given the fact that House of Sand and Fog contains more moments of mirth than this rather joyless exercise in waste and torpor. If this is what lies ahead for Ray Romano as he dips his toes in the tepid water of a movie career, he should reconsider his decision to end his CBS series sooner rather than later. Starring in movies that look like awful sitcoms is a far less prudent decision than sticking with the merely mediocre sitcom that made you a household name; how quickly they forget your moniker after stinkers like these, eh, David Caruso?
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Romano is the David to Hackman's Goliath, and the audience would be wise to bring the slingshot. Romano plays "Handy" Harrison, hardware-store owner and Mr. Fixit in the small Maine town where former president Monroe "Eagle" Cole has decided to move after eight years in office. The day Cole arrives, he's begged by the townsfolk to run for mayor, which he, of course, refuses to do until the town's pretty veterinarian, Sally (Maura Tierney), casually suggests he ought to do it. Cole, who would like to punch Sally's ballot, agrees only to impress her, because being the former commander in chief, apparently, isn't enough anymore.
But Cole discovers, long after the national media has, that Handy's running, too, which makes Cole look like he's big-timing a small town and the little people in it. (The premise of Mooseport makes so little sense that to even wonder why "the most beloved president since Kennedy" would sacrifice millions in speaking engagements and risk damaging years of international goodwill to govern a tiny burg is to spend far more time pondering the question than screenwriter Tom Schulman.) Handy and Cole spend the next two hours fighting not over who will run the town, but who will win Sally -- who's been Handy's girlfriend for six years, though it often appears that Tierney and Romano just met that afternoon, given that they have as much chemistry as a fifth-grade science class.
Romano's very much a take-him-or-leave-him actor; he's fine on his series only because he's surrounded by actors who distract your gaze. Donald Petrie, maker of pedestrian comedies How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Miss Congeniality, is working on the same principle here: The cast includes Marcia Gay Harden as the president's assistant...or lover...or something, Rip Torn as his campaign manager and Christine Baranski as his ex-wife. But it doesn't work so well on the big screen, which magnifies the glazed look in Romano's eyes. Every time he's in a scene with Hackman, he actually seems to fade off the screen, like Michael J. Fox in those family snapshots he carried in Back to the Future; you expect Romano to be gone by film's end, back to the cozy confines of the smallest of screens.
Hackman, for his part, seems eager to stress the "hack" in the man; he's become too eager to take roles that ask nothing of him and receive as much. He's been a president before in another bad movie, Absolute Power, and it's almost too much to watch him serve a second term with an untenable administration; impeachment would be too kind. Whether it's the fault of a movie business that doesn't know how to use a 74-year-old actor who looks and acts decades younger or the fault of the man who looks at these awful movies as retirement with a fat paycheck is a moot point. "I had dignity once," Hackman growls here, before engaging Romano in another mano a monotone. "Doesn't anyone here remember that?" No, sir, not really.