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The Majestic   D

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Frank Darabont
Writer: Michael Sloane
Cast: Jim Carrey, Martin Landau, Laurie Holden, David Ogden Stiers, Jeffrey DeMunn, James Whitmore, Bob Balaban, Hal Holbrook.

Review by Rob Vaux

Would you like a little cheese with your corn? The Majestic will be more than happy to accommodate you. A turgid, simplistic melodrama with enough Hallmark moments to gag Walt Disney, it achieves nothing besides confirming director Frank Darabont as a one-trick pony while marking another chapter in Jim Carrey's quixotic quest to be taken seriously as an actor. Heart-warming films are to be expected this time of year, but good Lord...

Carrey plays Peter Appleton, a Hollywood screenwriter on the verge of hitting the big time. His first film, Sand Pirates of the Sahara has just released, he's dating the cute-as-a-button star, and the studio looks ready to pick up his contract. Then in a flash, McCarthyism shatters his pat little Tinseltown life. Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and staring the dreaded blacklist in the face, he goes completely to pieces. A drunken ride upstate "to clear his head" results in a nasty accident and an oh-so-convenient bump on the head. When he wakes up, it's as if he died and went to Norman Rockwell's wet dream: a little town full of good honest folk who have lost more than their share of young men to the war. Appleton, afflicted with amnesia, is the spitting image of the town's native son, recorded as missing in action some nine years ago. He soon finds himself a local hero, and inadvertently helps the town to put its ghosts to rest... which apparently involves restoring an old movie theater and sitting around with a befuddled smile while the attendant populace fawns all over him.

In theory, there's nothing wrong with a little Capra-esque sentiment; Darabont struck gold using it in The Shawshank Redemption. But that film tempered its melodrama with discipline, understating the emotions rather than pumping them up. The Majestic lays it on so thick and heavy that it robs the material of any potency. How can we feel nostalgic or uplifted, when the settings and drama are almost cartoonishly broad? No cliché is left unturned, from the letterman sweater Appleton's paramour (Laurie Holden) wears on their first date, to the saccharine townspeople who agree en masse to everything the principle characters say. Darabont whiplashes the wholesome caliber of small town life against the sinister government forces ostensibly acting in their interests. In the film's penultimate scene, the minions of the HUAAC come into town in a fleet of black sedans while the hapless citizens look on in horror. Why don't they just have the Klan ride in? Or Darth Vader while they're at it? The stereotyping is obscenely broad, the message pounded in like a jackhammer, and while some could make an argument that Appleton's plight has contemporary ramifications, it's hard to imagine any real-life problems with such easy moral boundaries... or such appallingly pat resolutions. The main story is framed by a feeble satire on the studio system, supposedly mocking the very shortcomings that the film itself illustrates so brazenly.

As for Carrey, he delivers a decent dramatic performance, but his efforts to go against type mask his very real limits as an actor. "Adequate" doesn't mean "outstanding," and Carrey's work, while competent, certainly won't make him the next De Niro. His movie star ego leads to some searingly self-indulgent moments, including a final speech that would make Jimmy Stewart cringe with embarrassment. At least he's not alone: a plethora of talented people, from Hal Holbrook to Martin Landau, waste their gifts on what, in a just universe, would be another movie of the week.

Hollywood becomes afflicted with a case of the Self-Importants every December, trying to impress us all with the tough issues they courageously tackle. They don't understand that "tough issues" often involve controversy, which sometimes means saying unpopular (i.e. unprofitable) things. Genuine artistic expression requires real risk, defies easy answers, and dares to challenge its viewers. The Majestic is a textbook example of how not to do that. It espouses simplistic solutions, phony platitudes, and dripping schmaltz in the place of genuine humanity, making a lie out of all the emotions it wants so badly to champion. Christmas is supposed to be a time for uplifting stories. The Majestic will have you grabbing your sniper rifle and running for the nearest water tower.

Review published 12.27.2001.

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