Having given us The Shawshank Redemption in 1994 and The Green Mile five years later, director Frank Darabont finally busts his way out of prison with his third feature, The Majestic (which, incidentally, has the worst ad art since Green Mile). Working from a script by Michael Sloane -- no Stephen King connection this time -- Darabont admittedly is trying for a Frank Capra effect. Indeed, the best that can be said about The Majestic is that it may boost Capra's reputation by virtue of comparison. Apparently it's not so easy to weave that kind of magic.
Jim Carrey stars as Peter Appleton, a young Hollywood screenwriter, circa 1951, whose career is just beginning to heat up. His first credit, a sub-Errol Flynn action flick titled Sand Pirates of the Sahara starring Brent Armstrong and Ramon Jamon, has just opened at Grauman's Chinese as the B-half of the bill with The African Queen; he's now hard at work on Ashes to Ashes, a classier project about the plight of coal miners. He's got a flashy new Mercedes and an even flashier girlfriend (Amanda Detmer).
But his whole life suddenly derails when a congressional panel of Commie-busters fingers him as a subversive: While trying to put the moves on a coed back in his college days, he accompanied her to some meetings of the "Bread Instead of Bullets" Club. Peter is no hero: He's all too willing to testify, to name names (if he can make any up), to be a show pony for the committee. He cares about nothing but keeping his career on track, to a degree that seems a little crass even to his agent (Allen Garfield). But while driving up the coast to unwind, he encounters a storm and skids off a bridge. When he awakens on a beach near a little town called Lawson, he's got a bump on his head, no identification and a nice case of amnesia.
At first, everyone in Lawson who meets him -- the old codger who finds him (James Whitmore), the town doctor (David Ogden Stiers), the sheriff (Brent Briscoe) -- thinks he seems vaguely familiar. Their uncertainty makes no sense in retrospect. He is, in fact, a dead ringer for Luke Trimble, who went missing during World War II some ten years earlier. (If there's supposed to be any ambiguity, using what appear to be real photos of Carrey as Luke wasn't a very good idea.)
Peter doesn't think he's Luke, but not having any other identity to cling to, he allows himself to become Luke -- particularly since the job includes a loving father (Martin Landau), a gorgeous fiancée (Laurie Holden), a Congressional Medal of Honor and the admiration of the whole town. Luke's amazing resurrection energizes the town. Without his real personality to fall back on, Peter quickly grows to match the role he's been assigned. He helps his "dad" reopen their old movie theater (from which the film takes its title); he provides a sense of hope to all the other parents who lost sons in the war; he becomes the agent of healing.
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If that sounds cloying, it is. Even the belated arrival of some sort of real threat -- the committee has detectives hot on Peter's trail, assuming that his disappearance is a sign of guilt -- doesn't do much to cut through the gallons of treacle that Darabont has poured on the project. Sloane seems to have been primarily inspired by Robert Riskin's brilliant script for Capra's Meet John Doe -- with infusions from other classic Capra films, as well as Preston Sturges's Hail the Conquering Hero. It's not surprising that Darabont and Sloane don't have the edge of Sturges. After all, how many writers or directors do? But they don't even muster Capra's edge. If the old master's films have for years been glibly derided as "Capra-corn," The Majestic is all corn and not enough Capra.
Capra was a genius of storytelling technique who had discovered precisely how to put across outrageous sentimentality. For instance, he always had one totally cynical character on screen -- played by Ned Sparks or Thomas Mitchell or Walter Brennan -- to let us know that he knew he was getting too sappy. There's no such relief in The Majestic. Instead, we get a town with nothing but nice people. The closest thing to a "bad guy" in Lawson is a bitter disabled veteran who works in the local diner. In fact, Lawson is so idyllic that the only Capra-ville it resembles is Shangri-La in Lost Horizon -- and even Shangri-La was more realistic.
It's only part of the problem that Lawson is constantly shot in a lovely, surreal glow, and that there exists no racial bias or poverty or jealousy or damned near any emotions beyond friendliness and postwar grieving. Darabont is, to put it mildly, a leisurely storyteller, and this trifle weighs in at more than two and a half hours (or, a half-hour shorter than Green Mile). Length shouldn't be a criterion, in and of itself, but there's no doubt the film's pacing is pokey.
Certainly, Carrey has proved himself a versatile actor, not just a rubber-faced clown, but he doesn't fill the shoes of either James Stewart or Gary Cooper here. The problem is less a matter of acting chops than of physical presence. And the entire cast is forced to deliver some howlers that would have seemed clichéd 50 years ago. Even the protagonist's big speech at the end -- the payoff for the entire film -- fails to inspire. And it's doubly a shame because the sentiments it expresses about liberties are more relevant in these days of John Ashcroft than Darabont or Sloane could possibly have anticipated.