2 Stars
Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 127 minutes
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It is a distinct displeasure to report that Frank Darabont seems to have completely lost the plot. Subtract all the good things about “The Shawshank Redemption,” multiply all the bad things about “The Green Mile,” and you end up with “The Majestic.” The movie is as American as apple pie and will surely find its fans in these troubled times. But in truth, this particular brand of apple pie is far too sugary and more than a bit stale.
With his new movie, Darabont – a Hungarian immigrant whose gee-whiz, aw-shucks patriotism is undoubtedly genuine – attempts what countless directors have tried and failed to do before him: resurrecting the spirit of Frank Capra. His timing couldn’t be better, but his technique is questionable at best. “The Majestic” is derivative and phony. Capra has been embalmed and larded with prefab sentimental glaze, a synthetic 21st century Hollywood idea of what Capra the director stood for. The rough and tumble humanity found in Capra’s best work has been fastidiously frozen in amber, drained of anything resembling life.
The setup shows promise. Jim Carrey plays Peter Appleton, an optimistic screenwriter – yes, you read that right – whose first picture, Sand Pirates of the Sahara, has just opened. Peter is in heaven seeing his words brought to life on the big screen at Grauman’s Chinese (amusingly enacted with retro-cheese gusto by Bruce Campbell and Cliff Curtis, and a certain golden idol borrowed from “Raiders of the Lost Ark”). But the high won’t last, for this is the early fifties and the dreaded House Un-American Activities Committee has poor Peter in its sights.
After being cut loose by the studio and dumped by his starlet girlfriend, Peter goes on a bender that ends with him driving up the coast and off a bridge. Up to this point, the movie plays reasonably well if a bit synthetic, a bit canned.
When Peter awakes on a deserted beach, though, it all starts sliding sideways. Crusty old Stan Keller (James Whitmore, always a pleasure after all these years) scrapes Peter up and walks him to town. The town is Lawson, postcard-purty but still reeling from the tragically disproportionate losses of its young men in World War II.
Before you can say “Martin Guerre,” amnesiac Peter is being taken for Luke Trimble, long lost son of local moviehouse owner Harry Trimble (Martin Landau). Harry is understandably – and unquestioningly – overjoyed at the “reunion,” and soon the entire town sweeps down on Peter, who can’t even remember his name. The appearance of Luke’s old flame Adele (Laurie Holden) seals the deal. As far as everyone in sight is concerned, Peter is now their prodigal son, their favorite son. Will Peter ever snap out of it? Will HUAC come a-calling? Will “The Majestic” go on longer than The Green Mile did? (No to the last one – it only feels like it.)
The problem with the first ninety or so minutes of “The Majestic” couldn’t be more fundamental: there is absolutely no conflict going on. Darabont and screenwriter Michæl Sloane are so determined to present their idealized vision of small-town America in the fifties – “a time of innocence,” as we’re so often reminded – that not a single soul even thinks to ask the sainted Luke what the hell he’s been up to since the war ended nine years before. “Where ya been, Luke?” would seem a natural question for anyone to ask, especially his own father, but it never is asked. Since it’s blindingly obvious that sooner or later Peter’s true identity will be revealed, to himself and everyone else, the only suspense is in how long the movie can possibly draw the issue out. It’s quite a while. (At least some inner conflict might have resulted were Peter hiding out as an impostor, but this ain’t that movie.)
It’s not really Carrey’s problem, however. In his first true “straight” role, he delivers rock solid work, manfully resisting the urge to go all Robin Williams on us. He’s turned into a real Actor, and his work will only get better from here. Unfortunately, the movie completely neuters him. Did Darabont, in crossbreeding patented Everyman and Romantic Leading Man characters, trying to mold Carrey into another Jim – James Stewart of course – have to make the guy so utterly vanilla? Granted, Carrey must play a reactive, essentially clueless character whose response to every question is “I don’t remember.” It’s just a shame he has to be so blanded out while doing it. He’s a complete blank.
By the time Peter/Luke has helped Harry renovate and reopen his beloved local movie palace, the Majestic of the title, the movie has beaten us down to the point of wondering “If everyone in town loves the theatre so much, why did it ever close down in the first place?” The movie asks us to believe that such has been the transformative power of Luke’s return. In fact, the movie asks us to do a lot of things – in Darabont’s words, it “asks us to feel something.” But what the movie really does is tell us to feel something, with a Kleenex in one hand and a sledgehammer in the other.
Crafting a movie as a love letter to Capra – or America, or the movies themselves – is a nice idea. “The Majestic” is a garish color Xerox. Capra becomes just another brand name here, and Darabont’s movie sells the brand so hard it courts ridicule at every turn. Where Capra was emotional and at times sentimental, this thing feels merely artificial. Capra often dealt with actual, messy emotions, though as a brand name he’s not credited for doing so. Take “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” as one example (“The Majestic” certainly does, explicitly restaging that film’s climax for its own). In that film, Gary Cooper played a prickly character with a rather violent temper, and seemed all the more human for it. Here we are 65 years on, and a big-budget Hollywood movie intended as a tribute to the creator of films like “Mr. Deeds” can’t remotely handle such ambiguities in its leading man? Pass the Kleenex.
It’s no fun beating up on a movie that features a screenwriter as its hero. The epically familiar courtroom finale, in which the now-recovered Peter gets to stick it to HUAC, has undeniable appeal – in theory. But Peter’s grand speech, while well-delivered by Carrey, is drawn out well past the point of absurdity and comes far too late to mop up all the sap that’s been spilled.
People who embrace this movie – there are sure to be a few out there – will defensively argue that it’s just not a movie for cynics (or critics). That’s undeniably the case, but whoever buys this bill of goods is also unlikely to have seen any of the films “The Majestic” freeloads from so liberally. The more uninformed the better, in this case.
As with many screenwriters in showbiz these days, if “The Majestic” had a single original idea in its head, it might have been a success.

Posted on December 21, 2001 in Reviews by

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