It’s the early ’50s, a time of a golden age of studio moviemaking in Hollywood, which attracts countless hopeful artists. Screenwriter Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey) is one of them, and you could say he’s made it, even though only one of his scripts was produced, the B-movie adventure “Sand Pirates of the Sahara”. But his emerging success is short-lived, as he finds himself blacklisted and called to testify in front of Congress on suspicion of being a Communist. To make matters worse, after getting hammered he drives his car over a bridge and knocks himself out, bad. He is washed away on a beach, just off the small town of Lawson, with no recollection whatsoever about who he is. Yet everyone thinks he looks oddly familiar: could he be Luke Trimble, a young local man who went missing while fighting in World War II? Not knowing better, Pete plays along and moves in with Luke’s father (Martin Landau), socialises with Luke’s friends, he even starts dating Luke’s old girlfriend Adele (Laurie Holden)! He’s like the prodigal son coming home, lifting everyone’s spirits out of their post-war blues, most notably by revamping the Majestic, the abandoned movie palace. Everything’s peachy. But what if Pete’s memory comes back, which life would he choose? Worse, he might not even have a choice, as the paranoid, Red-chasing FBI is still after him.
“The Majestic” is the latest from director Frank Darabont, whose two first movies were period prison dramas adapted from Stephen King stories. I loved his “The Green Mile” and especially “The Shawshank Redemption”, with their old fashioned filmmaking style and sentimental, nostalgic tone, but while Darabont’s new movie embodies those characteristics, here they feel contrived and manipulative. The movie meanders without finding its rhythm, and it doesn’t achieve to breath some fresh air into the clichés it’s built from. The film is set in a time and a place which I don’t think ever existed outside the movies, a small town where everyone knows and loves each other, and everything is always going smoothly, even on bad days. The film is populated with stock characters from every other old movie, from the outgoing mayor to the sassy diner owner, the unpretentious Doc, the simple minded but good-natured workers, the kindly old men, the geeky kid who idolises the hero, the token black guy. And like in The Simpsons’ Springfield, everyone in town is always conveniently there around Pete/Luke to react and comment on the action.
I was never able to buy the premise. Ok, the guy is afflicted with amnesia, and it just so happens that in the very town he crashes in, his exact look-alike has been missing for 9 years! This is already a lot of suspension of disbelief to ask of the audience, but the kicker is how everyone accepts this at face value and involve Pete/Luke back into their lives, barely wondering where he’s been all these years. On their own, most of the scenes which make up the bulk of the movie are pleasant enough (as far as generic cutesy sap goes at least), but the way the film shoves aside almost any questioning of the premise makes the whole thing hard to get into. I’ve always found Jim Carrey to be a good lead actor,but here he’s not given much to work with. As an amnesiac, his character is literally a big blank! Still, he does share some touching isolated moments with Martin Landau, as a father so very happy to believe his son has come back to life, and with Laurie Holden, who brings him to their special places (like the lighthouse where they first kissed) to jolt his memory. And I must admit, the piano scene made me grin like an idiot.
Yet those are only a few bright spots through a lot of trite, predictable moments. Most of the film plays with potentially interesting ideas but fails to make good of them. For instance, I kinda liked the romantic view of movies as a communal escapist experience, dispensing dreams on a big screen, but this is only voiced once, in an overwritten speech. Other than that, it’s just dull scenes of people renovating the movie house, ordering Raisinets, tearing tickets… Likewise, the whole Communist witch-hunt subplot feels like an after-thought. It’s touched upon early in the film, but then it’s forgotten about until the last act, when Pete faces Congress and must decide between purging himself of activities he never committed and naming names, or standing up for what he believes in at the risk of going to prison. That part of the film is quite involving and uplifting, if only in a simplistic, rah rah America-the-byoo-tee-ful way, but it’s not enough to salvage the film, especially considering how it’s followed by a pukingly sweet happy end.
Overall, “The Majestic” is not a bad film, but it’s not a good one either. It works often enough to keep the audience from being outright bored, but it hardly ever rises above by-the-numbers storytelling and easy answers. Darabont has stated that he’s a huge fan of Frank Capra and it shows, but only superficially. It wants to promote decency, truth and freedom, but it’s afraid to contrast it with the darker corners of the human heart. It’s “Capra for Dummies”.