Welcome to Mooseport

“Welcome to Mooseport” is the most pleasant and agreeable unfunny comedy I’ve seen in many a moon. Most unfunny comedies are irritating, distasteful or moronic. Not this one. This one isn’t very funny, but it’s a nice way to pass 111 minutes nonetheless.

I credit the cast. It’s chock-full of likable, talented actors, nearly all of whom should know better than to take part in something so average, but none of whose careers will be harmed one bit for doing so. Gene Hackman, Marcia Gay Harden, Ray Romano, Maura Tierney, Fred Savage, Rip Torn, Christine Baranski — my goodness, each of these people could plant a bomb in a preschool and still have the love of every person in America.

Hackman plays Monroe Cole, who has just finished two terms as the most popular president in U.S. history and is retiring to his vacation home in tiny Mooseport, Maine. He’s a friendly, shrewd man with a boyishly giddy love for the perks of the presidency, not because they stroke his ego (which is only of average size), but because they’re just so darn cool. It’s no wonder everyone in America loved him.

He’s a hit in Mooseport, too, a secluded hamlet where everyone says “hello” to everyone else each morning and where it’s a big deal when the president comes to live there. In fact, the town council wants him to be the new mayor, what with the former mayor having recently and conveniently passed away. No one else is running in the election, which is imminent, and it must be mostly a figurehead position anyway, so against the advice of his advisers (Marcia Gay Harden and Fred Savage), Cole decides to do it.

What the town council didn’t know, though, was that local hardware store owner Harold “Handy” Harrison (Ray Romano) had decided to run, mostly to do the town a favor, since no one else was going to. He’s all ready to back down when he finds out Cole has been chosen, until Cole asks his veterinarian girlfriend Sally (Maura Tierney) out on a date — and she says YES! Of course you know, this means war.

Here’s where the film ought to become hilarious. We have a seasoned political professional, armed with a ruthless campaign manager (Rip Torn), millions of dollars and decades of experience, running against a plumber. We have a former U.S. president trying to become mayor of a small town. We have his shrewish ex-wife (Christine Baranski) showing up just to campaign against him. We have the immature rivalry inherent in all men, where they will compete against each other for the sake of pride, even when they’ve forgotten the real reasons. This is GOLD, people! GOLD!

But it just doesn’t take the risks necessary to be successful — interestingly, the same complaint Sally has against boring ol’ Handy. The movie and Handy both go the easy route, trying not to offend anyone, making the basic jokes and then moving along. What this film needs is some zip, some pizzazz, some moxey.

It almost gets it — but from the supporting female cast, not the leading men, who are too busy being congenial. Baranski, for example, is playing a thankless role — the cold-hearted First Lady is such a cliché by now — but she sure throws some life into it with a dose of pure, calculating evil.

And just you watch Maura Tierney and Marcia Gay Harden, both strong, deep-voiced, beautiful but not classically so, and eminently dignified. Their characters feel alive and passionate, and often funny, too. Their one scene together — in which they drunkenly mock the boys’ golf-for-Sally’s-love competition — is sheer joy to behold, and far too brief.

It was written by Tom Schulman (“What About Bob?,” “Holy Man”) and directed far too slowly by Donald Petrie (“How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” “Miss Congeniality,” “Grumpy Old Men”). It goes a little overboard on the gee-aren’t-these-local-folks-wacky? business, and it’s all very toothless and benign.

But I certainly didn’t mind watching it. It’s the kind of movie that smiles blandly at you because it can’t think of anything smart to say, and so you smile back, content but not intrigued. If I had to choose between that and a movie that aggressively demonstrates its emptiness through lame jokes and brash vulgarity, I’d take the quiet one any day.

B- (1 hr., 51 min.; PG-13, scattered mild profanity, several shots of an old guy's naked butt.)