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No Thanks

This week in the movies: Welcome to Mooseport and The Statement.



She-Hulk vs. Leon Spinks? Worst crossover ever." This is a quote from Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons, while he is dumping a box of unsold comics in a back-alley dumpster. Moments later, red-eyed, CHUD-like nerds swarm about (as I suppose they do near dumpsters of comic book stores) in the hopes of amassing whatever comics may be discarded. "Back! Back, nerds!" Comic Book Guy bellows as he retreats.

I can do a fairly credible Comic Book Guy impersonation, and when I get my own radio show, I will be happy to look back to 2004 and say, "Ray Romano and Gene Hackman? Worst crossover ever!" Worse than Freddy and Jason's recent pairing? Maybe not. And certainly no worse than the 1989 Oscar telecast that featured Rob Lowe and Snow White duetting on "Proud Mary." But pretty close. Worst comedy of 2004 so far? Definitely.

Hackman is Monroe "The Eagle" Cole, popular outgoing president and recent divorcÇ (the most beloved president since Kennedy and the only president to divorce in office). Ex-wife Charlotte (Christine Baranski) has managed to get the main residence in Baltimore, so Monroe retires to the summer home in an excessively charming Maine village called Mooseport.

(Tangent: You can tell how in touch Hollywood is with small-town life in America by the way it romanticizes/patronizes the subject. In & Out and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, two hilarious fables about living fabulously in the quaintest of small towns, illustrate the perception that all these towns need is a little sophistication and color and they're just as good as city living. When it comes to comedy, I much prefer the fish-out-of-water exploits of Northern Exposure, which managed to pick apart the quirks and backward-ities of small-town life without pandering to more urban outfitters and their sense of the cosmopolitan. End of tangent.)

Also in Mooseport is Handy Harrison (Romano), an extremely well-liked hardware-store owner and fix-it man. He's been drifting along in an aimless relationship with beautiful veterinarian Sally (Maura Tierney) for six years and living well as a comfortable townsman. But when a $17,000 job translates into a new truck instead of an engagement ring, it's time for Sally to take stock. A pass from Monroe becomes an opportunity to make Handy jealous, and so Sally agrees to a date with the newly single ex-president.

But first: A cockamamie political upheaval has resulted in both Handy and Monroe vying for the mayorship of Mooseport. Seems that the last mayor has passed away, and the aldermen of Mooseport (talk about yokels!) have persuaded Monroe to run unopposed just as Handy joins the race as a favor to the community. What a PR nightmare: Former president Monroe "The Eagle" Cole moves to a small town and tries to take both the mayor's sash and the girlfriend of a likable community pillar. To succinctly summarize what follows, I shall quote Leonard Maltin's review of the 1991 debacle Mannequin 2: On the Move: "torpor ensues." A supporting cast that includes Edward Hermann, Rip Torn, Marcia Gay Harden, and Fred Savage (quite the gamut, eh?) stands feebly by with little to do. Harden does best in the film's sole good scene -- a romancer with the prez.

I have never liked Ray Romano -- as an actor. (As a human, I hear that he is lovely.) For me, the role of New York-ish, bug-eyed, slack-mouthed bad actor/good comedian has been aptly filled by Jerry Seinfeld. I've never watched a full episode of Everybody Loves Raymond because I find the drab delivery and chemistry between Romano and his co-star Brad Garret kind of creepy. But everyone loves him (hence the title, I guess), proving that my pop-cultural tastes are more obscure than the norm.

I have always respected Gene Hackman. As one of the busiest actors in Hollywood, he has not always chosen material that suits him best, but who cares? He's Gene Hackman. I feel sorry for him in this second-rate sitcom, which would be more at home in the Disney family hour than in theaters. Did you know that Hackman was almost Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch? Yep. Hopefully, that is as close as the fine Hackman will come to material like this again. As for his chemistry with Romano, there is none. Romano's Handy is always nervous around the president, but I think it's really that actor Romano is nervous around actor Hackman. Both Handy and Romano are out of their league and both seem to know it. -- Bo List

Catholicism has had a rough year at the movies. The Magdalene Sisters offered an angry denunciation of the church's decades-long oppression of women in Ireland's Magdalene laundries. Recently, controversy has been building over Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, an essentially Catholic film (though Gibson belongs to a relatively obscure sect that operates outside the mainstream of the church) that has been charged with anti-Semitism, charges fueled by Gibson's father's recent insistence that the Holocaust was mostly fiction. And now director Norman Jewison's The Statement, which takes the Catholic Church in France to task for aiding and abetting war criminals, is making its way around the country.

The film stars Michael Caine as Pierre Brossard, once a young member of the military police force for the Nazi-controlled Vichy government in France during the second World War, where he presided over the execution of seven Jewish men. Brossard was tried and convicted of collaboration and murder and sentenced to death in 1955 but was able to escape and has been on the run ever since. Set in 1992, The Statement depicts a Brossard who travels around France finding refuge in a system of monasteries and abbeys, protected by other members of a secret, conservative Catholic society to which he belongs.

But, in this post-Pinochet era and with the creation of "crimes against humanity" laws, the heat is back on Brossard, who finds himself pursued by both government agents bent on his capture and prosecution (a stiff-backed prosecutor played by Tilda Swinton and an army investigator played by Jeremy Northam) and assassins dispatched by what he assumes to be a vigilante Jewish cabal.

The Statement (based on a novel by Brian Moore, with a screenplay written by The Pianist scribe Ronald Harwood) is a dignified, literary political thriller, much like Caine's previous film, The Quiet American. But that's where the comparison ends. The Quiet American was a film full of ideas and flourishes, while The Statement is all surfaces. Caine is given a suitably complex character -- a man clearly guilty of his accused crimes and a potentially racist right-winger but also a devout man who prays constantly and begs forgiveness for his misdeeds -- but the script never really fleshes out these tensions. Caine, however, still gets better material than the grossly underused Charlotte Rampling, a fine actress who becomes an afterthought as Brossard's estranged wife, Nicole.

If you're wondering what all these distinctively British actors are doing in a film ostensibly about French characters, well, you're not the only one. English-language films have a long history of appropriating and abusing other cultures, but in recent years there's been a stronger focus on realism in terms of language and accent (see The Last Samurai), so the profound Britishness of this "French" film amounts to a significant distraction.

The Statement doesn't pummel the viewer like most other Jewison-directed "message movies" (In the Heat of the Night and The Hurricane), but it doesn't give us enough to chew on either. For all the ethical implications of the story, the film is basically just a thriller procedural and a rather modest one.

-- Chris Herrington

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