150 minutes | Rated: PG
Opened: Friday, December 21, 2001
Directed by Frank Darabont
Starring Jim Carrey, Martin Landau, Laurie Holden, David Ogden Stiers, Allen Garfield, Bob Balaban, Scotty Leavenworth, Ron Rifkin, Bruce Campbell, Amanda Detmer, Cliff Curtis, Michael Slone
Voice cameos: Matt Damon, Garry Marshall, Paul Mazursky, Sydney Pollack, Carl Reiner, Brian Howe
SMALL SCREEN SHRINKAGE: 15%|
"The Majestic" shouldn't lose much of its Capra-esque magic in being shrunk to TV size. Good rental, but not a keeper.
VIDEO RELEASE: 06.18.2002
Jim Carrey tries his hand at Jimmy Stewart style in idyllic but affecting '50s amnesia yarn 'The Majestic'
A heartfelt and surprisingly successful revival of the cinema-idyllic world of Frank Capra movies, "The Majestic" stars Jim Carrey as a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter with amnesia who stumbles into a small coastal hamlet where he's mistaken for a long-lost native World War II hero.
Affable alchemy is the specialty of director Frank Darabont -- the man behind the affecting sentimental sincerity of "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile" -- and he's just about the only big-budget, soft-sell director in the business who could pull off this kind of potentially cloying picture without sending it into sugar shock. Capra's legacy is in good hands for these 150 minutes.
Darabont opens "The Majestic" with a terrific establishing shot of Carrey's melancholy mug as he listens to off-camera studio executives castrate his latest script. Despite his fresh-off-the-bus enthusiasm for Tinsel Town, Peter Appleton (Carrey) is already weary of being a B-movie hack after just one picture, the cheesy "Sand Pirates of the Sahara" (which Darabont shows us in delightfully authentic snippets featuring Bruce Campbell as the swashbuckling, pith-helmet hero and Cliff Curtis as an evil, wild-eyed sheik).
But Pete's first serious project, a drama about a West Virginia coal miners' strike, has raised a literal red flag with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Senator Joseph McCarthy's infamous Cold War witch hunt for Stateside communists. Pete is, in very short succession, branded a commie and thrown off the studio lot.
Driving up the coast after drowning his sorrows in a few too many drinks, he careens off a bridge in a rainstorm. It's a seat-gripping scene of spinning tires on wet cement that leads to a nasty bump on the head and waking up on the shore the next morning, not knowing who he is or how he got there. But when Pete is helped into the nearby town of Lawson, everyone seems to know him -- and what's more, they're stunned to see him. None more so than Harry Trimble (Martin Landau), one-time operator of the town's now-shuttered Majestic movie theater, who is more convinced than anyone that the man with no memory is his son Luke, declared missing in action in 1942.
Luke's apparent return revitalizes Lawson, which lost 62 sons and husbands in the war and had never really recovered from its collective grief. He's "reintroduced" to his girlfriend, the inexplicably still single Adele (Laurie Holden), who falls in love again despite reservations about Luke's identity. He helps the invigorated Harry renovate and reopen the Majestic in all its neon-palace splendor. It isn't long before Pete starts to feel a part of this community that welcomed him "home" so enthusiastically.
Jim Carrey practically channels the spirit of Jimmy Stewart in his measured but enthusiastically earnest performance that is absolutely not the sappy pap it appears to be out of context in the movie's TV commercials. He effortlessly depicts Pete's uncomfortable psychological fusion of bewilderment and growing-but-uneasy acceptance of the wonderful life he's told is his. Carrey even has a wiry 1950s physique in the film.
Darabont infuses "The Majestic" with powerfully poignant imagery, like the scene of Harry taking down the photo of Luke and the memorial banner that has hung in the theater's empty box office window for nine and a half years. Landau's deeply felt performance of Harry's profound, rediscovered joy is a joy to watch as well.
The director has all kinds of unforceably poignant and clever touches up his sleeves. It's hard not to fall in love with the elderly ushers whose hearts never left The Majestic. It's warming to watch weeks pass by via the theater's marquee, showing "An American In Paris," then "The Day the Earth Stood Still," then "Sand Pirates of the Sahara" -- a screening that becomes a pivotal point in the story in may ways.
But Darabont makes a few mistakes along the way. He does a poor job of keeping up with the G-men that are on Pete's trail, on the assumption he's fleeing a subpoena to testify before the Committee. Infrequent cutaways to sinister senators and shadowy FBI guys feel at times like interruptions from another, more cartoonish movie -- that is, until the storylines inevitably converge for a last act unmistakably reminiscent of Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
Darabont also trades on some contrived moments like a cutesy first kiss shared between Carrey and Holden atop a lighthouse in front of a very artificial sunset and the tearful bedside colloquy between father and "son" after Landau has a heart attack.
But you have to set aside your modern cynicism for a movie that takes place in CapraWorld, embrace the inevitable clichés and forgive unimportant plot holes from time to time. So pardon me for a paragraph while I get a few things off my chest: The film fails to establish a credible reason for the Majestic to have shut down in the first place and stayed shut down for 10 years. It's just a plot device and a metaphor. Adele being a law student is a conspicuous touch of politically correct modernism. Carrey doesn't get impassioned enough when he finally does land in front of the Committee on Un-American Activities, and the reaction to his testimony is far-fetched to say the least.
But having said that, "The Majestic" is still a moving and alluring showpiece of neo-Americana -- even if it does view everything in its world through a rose colored camera lens, including the reprehensible House hearings that put dozens of brilliant screenwriters in prison because they refused to be bullied.
One note for the trivia-minded: Keep your eyes peeled for quick and witty homages to other movies -- most notably "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Mask."