There are delightful exceptions: Among the willful eccentrics in Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, Hackman's malingering patriarch drew broad grins by being the most recognizably human character on the screen. He was affably wicked as Lex Luthor in the first two Superman movies and dizzily game as the punching bag in Get Shorty. But for each triumph, there is an All Night Long or Loose Cannons.
All of this assumes that Welcome to Mooseport, in which Hackman plays a former U.S. president running for small-town mayor, is intended to be a comedy -- a generous leap of faith given that House of Sand and Fog contains more moments of mirth than this joyless exercise.
Romano plays "Handy" Harrison, hardware store owner and Mr. Fix-it 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. He refuses until the town's pretty vet, Sally (Maura Tierney), casually suggests that he ought to do it. Cole, who would like to punch Sally's ballot, agrees. Being the former commander in chief apparently isn't enough to impress her. But Sally has been Handy's girlfriend for six years (though it often appears that Tierney and Romano just met; they have as much chemistry as a fifth-grade science class), so Handy and Cole spend the next two hours fighting not over who will run the town but over who will win her.
Mooseport's premise makes so little sense that to even wonder why "the most beloved president since Kennedy" would sacrifice millions of dollars' worth of 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 has.
Romano is fine on his series because he's surrounded by actors who distract your gaze. Donald Petrie, maker of the pedestrian comedies How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Miss Congeniality, works on the same principle here. The cast includes Marcia Gay Harden as the president's assistant, 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.
Hackman was 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 question. "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.