by Eric D. Snider
Released: December 21, 2001
Jim Carrey makes another desperate grab at an Oscar nomination with "The Majestic," a lovely movie from Frank Darabont, the heart-tugging director of "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile."
For Carrey, desperately grabbing at an Oscar nomination means NOT behaving desperately. He is low-key and human, almost Jimmy Stewart-esque (notably for being in such a Frank Capra-esque movie), mainly because his character gets whacked in the head. Who knew it would take a concussion to finally calm him down?
He plays Peter Appleton, a Hollywood screenwriter in 1951 who writes B-movies like "Sand Pirates of the Sahara" and is tormented by the nameless, faceless studio heads who keep "improving" his work the way only nameless, faceless studio heads can. (The great inside joke is that the studio heads are played by Garry Marshall, Paul Mazursky, Sydney Pollack, Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner and Brian Howe -- all real-life directors and producers.)
It is the height of the McCarthy Era, and Peter soon finds himself blacklisted due to having innocently attended a Community Party meeting while in college. Drunk and depressed, he accidentally drives his car off a bridge and wakes up with amnesia in a small town called Lawton, Calif.
Lawton is a somber, quiet community, having lost 62 men in World War II. Peter bears a striking resemblance to one of them, Luke Trimble, and Luke's father Harry (Martin Landau) believes Peter is really his long-lost son. With the amnesia, Peter is in no position to argue. Maybe he IS Luke Trimble.
If he is, it means he's engaged to Adele Stanton (Laurie Holden), daughter of the town doctor. It also means he grew up helping Harry run the Majestic theater, which has since closed down. Aided by the former usher (Gerry Black) and candy girl (Susan Willis), Peter and Harry renovate and reopen the theater, bringing vitality back to the town ... and some memories back to movie buff Peter.
"The Majestic" spends a lot of time on the power of movies to uplift and entertain us, in the same vein as "Cinema Paradiso." At the same time, it presents a contradictory message about the corruption of Hollywood. (In 1951, it's hard to separate "Hollywood" from "movies," since there really was no independent filmmaking.) Michael Sloane's script wants to have its cake and eat it, too: Show us how great movies are, while mocking the way movies are made.
Another contradiction is in the film's climax, which takes place in a courtroom. Most courtroom climaxes are awful and cliched, and this one is no exception. Funny how in the opening scenes, we're watching film executives ruin Peter's movie by introducing senseless crowd-pleasing elements, and in the closing scenes, we're seeing "The Majestic" ruined the same way.
We live in patriotic times, to be sure, but I suspect the rah-rahism of that courtroom scene will be too much even for the most flag-waving of Americans. It's overdone, melodramatic and unrealistic. (Mark Isham's intrusive musical score doesn't help any.)
Carrey's performance is fine, considering his character is in a stupor most of the time, but Martin Landau is fantastic. He's the most honest character in the movie, and a joy to watch.
Up until the climax, "The Majestic" is a perfectly good film, with equal parts humor, whimsy and sweetness. Carrey probably won't get that Oscar nomination, but at least he made a decent movie while in search of it.
Rated PG, some mild profanity
Copyright © Eric D. Snider.
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