Welcome to Mooseport and Against the Ropes.

Welcome to Mooseport and Against the Ropes.

Welcome to Mooseport and Against the Ropes.

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Feb. 19 2004 7:10 PM

Rope-a-Dopes

Against the Ropes has no punch. Welcome to Mooseport won't take the gloves off.

Sitcom-caliber Mooseport
Sitcom-caliber Mooseport

There's nothing like the blood sport of a national campaign to get you salivating for a good political comedy: something with the rambunctious cynicism of Preston Sturges'Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), the acid postmodernism of The Candidate (1972), or the babbling vérité of Tanner '88 (1988, now—happily— in reruns on the Sundance Channel). The new comedy Welcome to Mooseport (20th Century Fox) has a fine (if convoluted) campaign-movie premise and a generous soul, but it's an ocean of blown opportunities.

The movie, written by Tom Schulman and directed by Donald Petrie, lumbers out of the gate, taking nearly half an hour to get to its narrative hook—and then backing into it, with seeming aimlessness. A popular ex-president, Monroe "Eagle" Cole (Gene Hackman), newly divorced and with a brittle, shrewish ex-wife (Christine Baranski) demanding more and more of his net worth, arrives with his entourage at his vacation home in Maine, now his full-time place of residence. For too many clunky reasons to recount, he agrees to run (unopposed) for mayor, then finds himself in a competition with plumber "Handy" Harrison (Ray Romano), whose veterinarian girlfriend, Sally (Maura Tierney), has been waiting six long years for a ring. Why the indecisive, go-with-the-flow Handy even wants the job is a mystery: Schulman keeps that decision off-screen, as if he couldn't figure out how to connect the psychological dots. But when the randy ex-prez asks the cutie vet girlfriend out, Handy is emboldened—before the eyes of the national press—to make it a real race.

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The last thing a bustling, ensemble comedy needs is a director with zero push, but Petrie has the kind of blandly humanistic, TV-movie pacing that lets you forget there's even a campaign going on. I'm not sure if the movie's lack of momentum is the fault of the director, the screenwriter, or the star, Romano. But most likely, it represents the luckless convergence of three dismayingly low-watt talents.

That voice of Romano's is certainly unique: Both nasal and glottal, it suggests a man who's stopped-up all over. He gets by with his glassy-eyed paralysis in Everybody Loves Raymond, where willful females are brought on to rouse him to (impotent) action. But it's deadly in a campaign comedy, in which you want the protagonist to take a little initiative. Romano isn't fast, and he doesn't have any compensating Andy-Griffith-like laconism. He's a moose. In Welcome to Mooseport, you end up gravitating to the ex-president's side not just because Hackman is the better actor, but because his character is the better politician—the best thing that could happen to this one-moose town (and movie).

Hackman has always been honest about taking "money jobs," which this one has to be. But that doesn't mean he isn't at the top of his game, with all cylinders firing. As "Eagle" Cole, he's always scanning the room, keeping one eye on the crowd and the other on the man whose hand he's shaking. It's another deceptively "easy" performance, at once calculating and large-spirited—Clintonesque. Hackman uses his stature as one of the world's greatest actors to seem truly presidential: a titan-diplomat in the land of Lilliputians.

Those little folk are at least personable. I've come to love Maura Tierney's throaty voice and tousled prettiness; and even though she doesn't take many chances in her acting, she has so much more inner life than her onscreen boyfriend that I rooted for her to end up with the much older man. Marcia Gay Harden is in the movie, too, in a demeaning older-woman role as the aide to the ex-president who secretly adores him. I was tempted to show her the respect of not mentioning her—but she does have a lively rapport with Hackman, who treats her as a fellow pro. My heart leapt when Rip Torn showed up as the ex-president's campaign manager—another Method giant, and a spark plug! But the filmmakers are too timorous to unleash him. (I almost showed him the respect of not mentioning him, either.)

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The movie makes a big to-do about its ensemble: There's an elderly nude jogger, a duffer who screams because he's so hard of hearing, and a foul-mouthed old woman who's around to goad Handy. Senior citizens are used in Welcome to Mooseport the way kids are used in sitcoms, to say the darndest things. They have more teeth than the politics, anyway.

Simplistic Ropes lacks punch
Simplistic Ropes lacks punch

Bland, TV-style writing and directing also brings down Against the Ropes (Paramount), the heavily fictionalized story of female boxing manager Jackie Kallen. The story of Kallen—a Jewish girl who'd stride over to her boxers' corner in skin-tight pants or minidresses, wearing her chutzpah on her cleavage—is such a natural for films that even the journalists who first wrote about her invoked the prospect of a biopic. She'd say of her rivals, "They never saw ferocious in high heels before." Her whole career was a movie-deal waiting to happen.

Meg Ryan plays Kallen, and you can see the thinking: This would be her Erin Brockovich, her way out of the Ghetto of Cute. (She might be less welcome in that ghetto now anyway, after unfortunate tabloid press and too-obvious plastic surgery.) Ryan is good, too: She knocks her voice down a few tones and croaks where she'd normally tinkle; and she looks smashing in those short, clinging leather and vinyl get-ups. The problem is that despite the hotcha costumes, she's weirdly sexless, and the role has been tailored to protect her on-screen virginity: She's the potty-mouthed Doris Day of boxing. There's no romance, no lovemaking, no family life, nothing but her fighters and her drive to prove that women can be just as good as men when it comes to telling men how to beat other men to a bloody pulp.

In life, Kallen had a husband and two kids and was a sometime rock journalist—hardly a single-gal secretary expected to look pretty and keep her mouth shut. But Against the Ropes has been imagined along the lines of a conventional biopic, complete with early scenes of its protagonist as a young girl perched beside a ring, aching to yell, "Jab! Jab! Jab!" at her uncle, a fighter. Told to go away and skip rope, she looks back with a mixture of hurt and feminist ire. At the other end of the movie is its heroine's climactic stride to the edge of the ring to badger her estranged and demoralized fighter (Omar Epps) to rise from the canvas. I was half-expecting someone to yell, "Go skip rope!" but maybe that got cut in previews when audiences laughed even harder than they do now. (Epps deserves credit for being able to play the scene with a straight face.)

There's a fine conceit in the second half: that Kallen became so enraptured by her own celebrity that she both neglected and upstaged the fighters whom she'd worked to make dependent on her. But Kallen was an associate producer on this movie and so any criticism is soft-pedaled: Maybe she thought too much of herself, but, really, wouldn't you have in her shoes (or, rather, thigh-high vinyl boots)? Especially when her rival is the unscrupulous, sexist gangster Larocca (Tony Shalhoub), who controls all the venues in Chicago and doesn't like being upstaged by some mouthy broad. (Shalhoub snorts like Bob Hoskins, but it really isn't in him to play a meanie, anymore than it's in Kevin Spacey to play a nice guy.)

The director, Charles S. Dutton (who's a reliable hoot in the role of the glowering trainer), keeps the picture moving along, with the usual getting-in-shape montages and some B to B- boxing. (He loses points for his attempts at subjective camerawork and for the shots where you can tell the fighters aren't connecting but the soundtrack still carries a mighty whack!) But Ropes is eminently skippable.