Director: Frank Darabont
Cast: Jim Carrey, Martin Landau, Laurie Holden, Bob Balaban, Gerry Black, Jeffrey DeMunn, Catherine Dent, Hal Holbrook, Ron Rifkin, David Ogden Stiers, James Whitmore
MPAA Rating: (for language and mild thematic elements)
Running Time: 2:32
Release Date: 12/21/01
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Review by Mark Dujsik
"No one else can balance the ups and downs of wistful sentiment and corny humor the way Capra canóbut if anyone else should learn to, kill him."
Pauline Kael certainly had a way with words, to use an understatement. I wonder how she would have felt about Frank Darabontís self-proclaimed Capra-esque drama The Majestic. I have a gut feeling she wouldnít have liked it, but Kaelites donít need to hunt down Darabont to serve their heroís adage. The Majestic certainly has a Capra feel to it, but itís no Capra film. Those kind of movies stopped being made a while ago. We live in a different time in which irony has replaced sincerityóalienation and self-awareness have replaced involvement. And so itís to my surprise that I fell so completely for Darabontís simple nostalgia. The movie has a certain self-awareness, but to the effect that it knows itís simple, old-fashioned entertainment. It indulges in it, actually, and I admire the film all the more for its indulgence. Itís sincere about and with its intentions. This is a movie that comes from years of watching moviesómade by movie-lovers for movie-lovers.
In the early 50s, screenwriter Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey) is uninvolved in many ways. He lets the studio change his scripts around to their liking. The opening scene of the film is a close-up on Peterís face as the studio-heads dissect his work and change it around so that itíll be audience-friendly. Watch his face; this is a man who has learned to wait for everyone to stop talking and say, "That sounds great." Heís approached by studio lawyers about a meeting he attended in college for a group that apparently had a Communist agenda. The House Committee on Un-American Activities wants him to testifyóto name namesóand the studio doesnít want to be associated with him. His latest script is confiscated, and since itís about a coal minersí strike, itís obviously subversive Marxist propaganda. Peter goes to drink his troubles away, ends up driving his car off a bridge, and wakes up on a beach with amnesia. A resident of the nearby town of Lawson takes him to see the local doctor. In town, Peter ends up being mistaken for Luke, the son of Harry Trimble (Martin Landau), who thought he lost him in World War II.
From this setup, we begin a simple story. The doctorís daughter Adele (Laurie Holden) was Lukeís old flame and conveniently returns soon after Peterís arrival. The Trimbles ran the local movie theater, The Majestic, now in shambles, and so now to celebrate Lukeís return, Harry decides to renovate and reopen it. The exposition is deliberate, giving us ample room to establish the time and characters. The town of Lawson seems lost in a time warp, even from what weíve seen beforehand. Itís in a state of constant sorrow and regret, having lost seventy-three of its citizens to the war. Thereís even a memorial kept in wraps in the town hall basement. A special section of the cemetery is reserved for the men lost in battle. We understand how much this town has lost and see how much it gains with "Luke."
Once The Majestic opens its doors again, the film becomes magical. So many movies like to be about making movies either in a self-congratulating or satirical way, but The Majestic is about movies making people happy. It doesnít glorify Hollywood; it honors the audience. Landau gives a great speech about the difference between watching movies and television. Classic films like A Streetcar Named Desire and An American in Paris are shown at The Majestic, and you canít help but smile at the idea of reminiscing on what it was like seeing these films for the first time. Peter somehow remembers these movies, quotes them readily, and can still play the piano. It suggests that art is in the subconscious or a universal collective consciousóa sacred place only we can access.
Politics and patriotism do find a way into the story. There are obvious issues presented, like the fact that the Committee on Un-American Activities was hypocritical and unconstitutional and the idea of respecting those who fight for freedom, but they are presented with a skillful sincerity. In this way, the movie is also for people who despise the concept of censorship. The conflict between upholding your values and maintaining your quality of life is also handled with care and intelligence. These may not always be the politics associated with older films, but they still have that basic ring of truth when you hear them. It would be easy to say that the film tries to manipulate the audience in light of recent national events, but the delivery is innocent, not exploitative like other films trying to simply cash in on tragedy.
The acting rings back to a past era, but the film belongs to Jim Carrey. Even in his more dramatic turns in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon, there was always an element of showmanship to his performances. He sheds that quality completely here, and gives a great, subtle Everyman performance. Heís exceptional in quiet moments, like the opening studio meeting I mentioned earlier, and heís all the more commanding when his character becomes the same. Thereís a speech of great distinction near the end of the film. Itís intelligent, powerful, and delivered with a naturalness usually unseen in big speeches. Itís most definitely a certainty that his character would never be able to finish the speech in real life, but thatís not the point. The film has a message to get across, and in the movie world, theyíre allowed to. The result of all of this is kind of like watching Jim Carrey playing James Stewart playing Peter Appleton.
The Majestic asks us to remember a time in film when, yes, sincerity was taken for granted. Itís a film that will not hold up to and was never intended for intense scrutiny. Itís just an old-fashioned, feel-good movie that, if you let it, will make you appreciate the sight of a grand, timeless movie theater more than you probably should. Like Capraís best films, it creates and captures a world sustained in our memories when everything seemed pure and on its own merits achieves a bit of the childlike joy of experiencing the magic of the cinema for the first time, and that is an accomplishment.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.