The Majestic

on December 21, 2001 by Wade Major
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   For all its drippy sentimentality and contrived, clockwork plotting, “The Majestic” should still round up a fair share of defenders among older moviegoers, especially those enamored of the Frank Capra and Preston Sturges classics that “The Majestic” strives so earnestly to emulate. Others, however, are likely to see the film's discomforting mash of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Meet John Doe,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Hail the Conquering Hero” and “Sullivan's Travels” as something of a cheap and obvious exploitation.

   In another misguided attempt at earning his stripes as a dramatic actor, Jim Carrey plays Peter Appleton, a reliable writer of low-grade B-movies in 1950s Hollywood. His precarious position is smartly conveyed in the picture's opening scene--Peter quietly sitting and stewing as an offscreen cadre of producers (voiced by Paul Mazursky, Rob Reiner, Carl Reiner, Sydney Pollack and Garry Marshall) dissect and reconceptualize his script, scarcely acknowledging his presence. It's insulting and demeaning, but it's a job. It is also the era of the blacklist, when Hollywood Communists were being smoked out of the woodwork by McCarthyist politicians hell-bent on ridding the entertainment industry of influential dissidents deemed subversive or even seditious. Even those whose Communist associations were marginal at best could be targeted--the very predicament that plunges Peter into an overnight nightmare. It turns out that a college political meeting that Peter attended years earlier simply to impress a date has deep Communist Party associations. As a result, his protestations notwithstanding, the studio puts Peter on ice, indefinitely suspending his project and contract renewal until his name can be cleared.

   True to his profession, Peter copes by drinking himself into a stupor and accidentally driving off a rain-soaked bridge where he whacks his head on a pylon, falls unconscious and washes ashore near a small California town without any recollection of who he is. The townspeople, however, are certain that he is Luke Trimble, the son of the local movie-house operator, Harry Trimble (Martin Landau), who vanished while fighting in Europe some nine years earlier. How and why Luke suddenly returns, with amnesia to boot, doesn't seem to raise too many eyebrows. All that matters is that the town has regained its favorite son. Even Luke's onetime fiancée, aspiring attorney Adele Stanton (Laurie Holden), represses her better judgment and gives into the desire to believe, fast rekindling the same magic with Peter that she once knew with Luke.

   Government officials, meanwhile, seize on Peter's convenient disappearance to track and hunt him down like a fugitive. The only question is whether they will find Peter or Luke and how that moment will weigh on those who have come to believe that miracles can happen.

   “The Majestic” draws its title from the name of the Trimble family movie theatre--a dormant wreck until Peter shows up and initiates its revival in a grand symbolic gesture meant to reflect not only Luke's value to the community, but the value of movies and free speech in American life. It's the biggest hammer in a movie so unsubtle that it spares no major character the opportunity to cry on-screen. Indeed, if “The Majestic” had a single, fatal flaw, it would be that it simply tries too hard.

   Writer Michael Sloane and producer/director Frank Darabont are clearly enamored of old movies, but they misjudge the source of those films' appeal, forsaking emotional honesty for sentimentality and making their characters subservient to the reactions they wish to extract from the audience. While there will always be those willing and eager to be so manipulated, the more prevalent reaction from moviegoers is likely to be one of resentment at such obvious emotional puppetry. Where Capra and Sturges trusted audiences to meet them halfway, Sloane and Darabont risk overshooting the destination all by themselves. It's difficult not to be especially disappointed in Darabont, who has now completely abandoned the restraint that characterized his acclaimed debut, “The Shawshank Redemption.”

   One positive that emerges from the wreckage is the performance of Laurie Holden, previously known for a recurring “X-Files” role as Marita Covarrubias. Miraculously, Holden withstands the onset of bathos that consumes so many of her distinguished colleagues, somehow taking dialogue that has no right to sound anything but laughable and delivering it with convincing dignity. If only the rest of the movie had followed her lead. Starring Jim Carrey, Martin Landau, Laurie Holden, David Ogden Stiers, James Whitmore, Bob Balaban and Allen Garfield. Directed by Frank Darabont. Written by Michael Sloane. Produced by Frank Darabont. A Warner Bros. release. Drama. Rated PG for language and mild thematic elements. Running time: 150 min

Tags: Jim Carrey, Martin Landau, Laurie Holden, David Ogden Stiers, James Whitmore, Bob Balaban, Allen Garfield, Directed by Frank Darabont, Written by Michael Sloane, Produced by Frank Darabont, A Warner Bros. release, Drama, emotional, puppetry, manipulated, wreckage, symbolic, nightmare
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