Screenplay : Michael Sloane
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Jim Carrey (Peterr Appleton / Luke Trimble), Martin Landau (Harry Trimble), Laurie Holden (Adele Stanton), Allen Garfield (Leo Kubelsky), Amanda Detmer (Sandra Sinclair), Gerry Black (Emmett Smith)
The Majestic is the third film directed by Frank Darabont, but it is the first that is not based on something written by Stephen King and set in a prison. And, after watching The Majestic, it is clear that Darabont needs grimmer source material to offset his candy-colored sentimentalism and too-comfortable populist leanings.
His first two films, The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1999) worked marvelously because the inherent darkness of the prison narratives restricted Darabont's nostalgic impulse to oversimplify and made the sentimentalism truly work for its effect. The Majestic, on the other hand, is set in the heyday of sun-dappled 1950s Americana, where the largest shadow on the horizon is cast by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and even that can be defeated by strong words about democracy and free speech.
The one word that pops up the most to describe this film has been "Capraesque," which Darabont himself has embraced. But, what people tend to forget is that many of Capra's best films were not nearly as simple and sentimental as our memories tell us they are. Everyone remembers the feel-good coming-togetherness at the end of It's a Wonderful Life (1946), while forgetting the fact that the entire story is constructed on a man's shattered dreams and compromises.
At first, Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey), the hero of The Majestic, is not a man of shattered dreams, but rather an up-and-coming Hollywood screenwriter who has just seen his first script produced (a B-movie actioneer called Sand Pirates of the Sahara) and has just finished his first "real" script, a bit of social consciousness about Virginia mine workers called Ashes to Ashes. Implicated by HUAC because he attended a left-wing meeting while in college, Peter is blacklisted, his hopes of being an A-list writer dashed. While driving drunk along a California highway, his Mercedes goes over a bridge, and he awakes the next morning on the beach with no memory of who he is.
Taken into the small, clean-cut northern California community of Lawson, he is mistakenly identified as Luke Trimble, an upright young man who was missing in action in World War II and has been presumed dead for the last nine and a half years. Embraced by Luke's father Harry Trimble (Martin Landau), Peter becomes Luke, even reunited with Luke's fiancee, Adele (Laurie Holden). Once Peter accepts himself as Luke, he resurrects the hopes and dreams of the entire town, which saw more than 60 of its young men killed in the war. Thus, Peter/Luke becomes more than a single man—he becomes a symbol that all those boys didn't die in vain, that they gave their lives for something meaningful.
In the great populist tradition, the community rallies around him in the form of helping him and Harry refurbish the local movie theater, the Majestic. It is a project around which everyone can come together—it renews their pluckiness—and, once brought back to its former, neon-glowing glory, the mini-movie palace becomes a symbol for the town's rejuvenation. It's a tricky symbol, though; while on the exterior it is bright and shining and beautiful, inside it is a world in which spectators willfully indulge in fantasies and myths that, at some point, must end.
Thus, as Luke's being alive in the form of Peter is a myth manufactured by a community desperately in need of something to cling to, it is only a matter of time before it is exposed as such. The question then becomes, how will the town recover from this devastating blow? Having lost Luke not once, but twice, is there any chance for hope at all? Peter is left with his own questions to answer, specifically those asked by the square little men of HUAC and their circus of a witch-hunt. Amazingly, screenwriter Michael Sloane makes Peter's appearance before HUAC work both to redeem Peter, the cowardly, apolitical screenwriter, and to rejuvenate the broken town, who can now find in Peter a new hero, rather than resurrecting an old one.
By now, seeing Jim Carrey perform dramatic roles has lost its "Hey, he can act!" gleam, and it is not a put-down to say he is affable and unassuming in the lead role. Some of his lines come off a bit stiff ("We were in love, weren't we?" he asks Adele in the worst kind of overwrought breathiness), but much of it is the fault of the lines, not the actor. Carrey brings an everyman kind of decency to the role, and if he is found lacking, it is in not fully suggesting the extent of Peter's shallowness, so that his redemption in the end lacks a real punch.
Ultimately, though, where The Majestic trips the hardest is in its consistent oversimplification of real problems. Economic woes, good men killed in battle, overzealous Senators tearing away constitutional rights—all is grist for the sentiment and nostalgia machines, where it is neatly reduced to what will most affect an audience with hazy memories and no real sense of history. The Majestic is a harmless movie, to be sure; sweet, unpretentious, and patriotic, it is exactly the kind of movie that many people embrace as good, wholesome entertainment. But, after viewing Darabont's previous films, particularly The Shawshank Redemption, in which he was so adept at bringing tears to your eyes by invoking great humanity in the face of true hardships, the too-thin, too-rosy-colored sweetness of The Majestic leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick