WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT — ** — Ray Romano, Gene Hackman, Maura Tierney, Marcia Gay Harden, Christine Baranski, Rip Torn, Fred Savage; rated PG-13 (vulgarity, profanity, slapstick violence, brief nudity).

Considering all the talented people involved with "Welcome to Mooseport" — including a great cast — you can't help but wish it were funnier. Even just a little bit.

The film seems bound and determined to challenge the notion that it is actually a comedy, with long stretches of that go by with nary a laugh. Too often it seems to settle for a few smile-worthy moments when it could have — and should have — been aiming for big laughs instead. And at nearly two hours, "Mooseport" is much too long, with sluggish pacing that makes it feel even longer.

Still, watching it isn't a completely painful experience, due in no small part to the talented, appealing cast, led by Ray Romano, who stars as Harold "Handy" Harrison, hardware-store owner in tiny Mooseport, Maine.

Handy has commitment problems, and after six years of dating, he still hasn't asked his girlfriend, veterinarian Sally Mannis (Maura Tierney), to marry him. But he may regret his indecision, because former U.S. President Monroe "Eagle" Cole (Gene Hackman) has retired to his summer home in Mooseport, and he's set his sights on Sally. And she seems receptive to his advances.

The romantic rivalry between the two men also spills over into local politics when the mayor passes away. Town leaders try to recruit the former commander in chief to run for the office — and not too coincidentally, the only other candidate who meets the filing deadline just happens to be Handy.

Director Donald Petrie and screenwriter Tom Schulman try to flesh out this material by throwing in as many characters as possible. With the exception of Marcia Gay Harden and Christine Baranski — who play the ex-president's most trusted adviser and his ex-wife, respectively — few are memorable. And the film's numerous subplots simply make the film longer, not better.

Still, Romano and friends do manage to elevate the material some. The sparks between his and Hackman's characters are believable. But Tierney and Harden are woefully underused.

"Welcome to Mooseport" is rated PG-13 for crude humor about and references to bodily and sexual functions, scattered use of profanity, slapstick violence (a brawl) and brief male nudity (flashes of a male backside). Running time: 111 minutes.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com