I’ve often said that I don’t mind being manipulated by a movie as long as the manipulation is done with skill and competence. “The Majestic,” a movie set in the ’50s and starring Jim Carrey as a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter, is a great piece of entertainment wrapped up in soapy melodrama and a whole lot of sappy romanticism. And you know what? I don’t care one bit.
“The Majestic” is a throwback to the era of Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart, the kind of movies that reaffirmed your belief in the human spirit as a force to be reckoned with. Jim Carrey steps into the Stewart role as Peter Appleton, a screenwriter who comes under attack by a witch hunt led by the House on Un-American Activities. The film’s premise is based on true events in American history when, at the height of U.S.-Soviet tension (re: the Cold War) a Congressional committee was set up to “expose” Communist sympathizers within the country. The hunt spiraled out of control and many people were forced to name names, and those who didn’t were blacklisted.
After Peter is blacklisted for an insignificant and minor event from his past, he gets drunk and promptly gets into a car accident. Peter ends up on the sandy beach of a small California town where he’s mistaken for a man name Luke Trimble, a war hero who went to war and never came home. Luke has been missing for 9 years and his body has never been found. Peter’s presence as Luke brings about a renewal to the formerly grieving town, which has lost over 60 of its young men to the war. Being a small town, the number of dead and missing has broken the town’s heart, and Peter’s return (or make that Luke’s return) brings hope back into their lives.
To help (or perhaps, to muddle) matters, Peter has lost his memory after the accident, and doesn’t know who he is. (Or does he?) So when the townspeople, including Harry Trimble (Martin Landau) tells Peter that his name is Luke Trimble, Peter accepts the identification. When Luke’s high school sweetheart and fianc’e Adele (Laurie Holden) also declares Peter to be Luke, things seem settled. Or are they?
On more than one occasion, director Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption”) and writer Michael Sloane throws curves at us. Sometimes we’re not sure if the townspeople (including Harry) actually know that Peter is not Luke and are just going along with it because they, as a town, need his “return” — or if they have, in fact, sincerely made a mistake. Actually, we’re not even certain if Peter knows he’s not Luke — or is he Luke, suddenly returned home by a set of coincidences after a 9-year absence? The screenplay holds these ever-present questions over our heads and never answers them until well past the halfway mark.
It should be noted that the real star of “The Majestic” is, in my opinion, Martin Landau, who gives a stellar performance as the grieving father who suddenly has his life returned to him with Peter’s arrival. Landau is superb, heartbreaking, heartwarming, and everything else in the role, and it is yet another example of cosmic injustice that he was never mentioned for an Oscar for this fine work. (Actually it’s a crying shame that “The Majestic” was completely ignored by every awards show in 2001.)
This isn’t to say Jim Carrey isn’t good. He is. He’s very good, in fact. “The Majestic” takes Carrey as far away from his rubber face comic roots as possible. Carrey is dead serious here, and it’s to Darabont and Carrey’s credit that they’re able to bury Ace Ventura so completely. The other half of the equation is Laurie Holden, a classically beautiful blonde who makes life worth living for Peter/Luke (and us, since we get to see her in all her perfectness).
“The Majestic” is a long film (over two hours long) and it is very slowly paced. Scenes are allowed to form and move and breathe, and Darabont, an old pro with period films by now, probably proves (if he hasn’t already) that he was born to make period American movies.
“The Majestic” is manipulative to be sure. It’s perhaps a little too long in some spots, and the FBI and the people behind the Communist witch hunt are much too cartoonish to be real flesh and blood. Still, “The Majestic” does it right, and for that, it can be as manipulative as it wants.
Frank Darabont (director) / Michael Sloane (screenplay)
CAST: Martin Landau …. Harry Trimble
Jim Carrey …. Peter Appleton
Catherine Dent …. Mabel
Amanda Detmer …. Sandra Sinclair
Hal Holbrook …. Congressman Doyle
Laurie Holden …. Adele Stanton