The movie THE MAJESTIC is a tribute to old Hollywood, and a minor history lesson about a pretty scary time in America.
Once upon a time in America, the nation went a bit askew. Those chosen to represent us turned on many of their citizens like mad dogs unleashed. The communist witch hunts of the late 1940s and early ’50s represent an ugly page in our history. Those hearings were more concerned with headlines and headhunting than ferreting out “reds” from our society. Many innocent lives were ruined; some people even died before this wholesale madness subsided. Upon the backdrop of this climate of paranoia sits The Majestic, a beguiling and stirring drama that will send chills down your spine and bring a tear to your eye.
A heartfelt and surprisingly successful revival of the cinema-idyllic world of Frank Capra movies and set against the backdrop of the 1950’s Hollywood blacklist and a witch-hunt by the House of Un-American Activities, the film stars Jim Carrey as Peter Appleton, a Hollywood screenwriter, 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. The story is about a young, ambitious screenwriter loses his job and his identity, only to find new courage, love and the power of conviction in the heart of a small town’s life.
It’s 1951. After an accident gives him a wicked case of amnesia, Peter winds up in the small town of Lawson, where he is mistaken for another man — Luke Trimble, a local hero who was believed to have been killed in WWII. And Peter, not knowing any better, assumes he must be Luke, too. Together with his “father” (Martin Landau), Peter/Luke begins restoring The Majestic movie theater that had been closed down for years. who has wandered into Lawson, a hamlet in Northern California where the streets are empty, and the local movie theater, the Majestic, has been abandoned since what seems like the advent of talkies. The citizenry is still getting over the number of young men it lost to World War II, and the Majestic is Lawson’s decayed crucible of hope. Applegate resembles Luke Trimble, a decorated veteran who has gone missing, and Luke’s anguished dad, Harry (Martin Landau), clings to the idea that his lost son has come home. The residents of Lawson discover that Luke is actually Peter Appleton, a screenwriter targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and they rally around him. That’s because they know that deep down, like every movie hero, he could never really have been a Communist. And it turns out he wasn’t.
“The Majestic” opens with a terrific establishing shot of Carrey’s melancholy mug as he listens to off-camera studio executives castrate his latest script. (Among the offscreen voices are those of Rob Reiner, whose company, Castle Rock, produced ”The Majestic,” and Garry Marshall). 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 the director Frank 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. Cited by a congressional committee as an alleged communist, Appleton’s contract and latest project are canceled by the studio. 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.
Frank Darabont made a name for himself writing and directing The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, two brilliant and beloved adaptations of Stephen King prison stories that netted him three Oscar nominations (two for writing, one for producing). With The Majestic, Darabont jettisons King, the prison setting and, worst of all, himself as a screenwriter.
Jim Carrey is one of those comedian/actors who’s had more than his share of potential overlooked movies. Whether it’s his first commercial failure, the underrated The Cable Guy, or his excellent turn as Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman’s Man On the Moon, it seems like most of Carrey’s best movies (with the exception maybe of The Truman Show) are his least appreciated. Perhaps his best least-appreciated movie is is Frank Darabont’s 2001 homage to Frank Capra, The Majestic. 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. With its lazy, heavy-handed nostalgia, ”The Majestic” is just the kind of picture those studio executives would love. The Majestic’s minor shortcomings rest however in its presentation of the red-baiters – the various congressmen and FBI agents involved in the witch hunt. They are cartoonish, thus when Peter finally stands up to them, the outcome is inevitable. The finale with a flag-waving First Amendment rally speech makes it seem a little out of place.
THE MAJESTIC: Produced and directed by Frank Darabont; written by Michael Sloane; director of photography, David Tattersall; edited by Jim Page; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Gregory Melton; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 110 minutes.
WITH: Jim Carrey (Pete/Luke), Martin Landau (Harry Trimble), Laurie Holden (Adele Stanton), David Ogden Stiers (Doc Stanton), James Whitmore (Stan Keller), Jeffrey DeMunn (Ernie Cole), Ron Rifkin (Kevin Bannerman), Hal Holbrook (Congressman Doyle), Bob Balaban (Elvin Clyde), Amanda Detmer (Sandra Sinclair), Gerry Black (Emmett Smith) and Bruce Campbell (Roland the Intrepid Explorer).