Frank Darabont’s “The Majestic” is about the refurbishing of a long-shuttered, dilapidated movie theater–a communal event that revives the small town where it’s located by filling the inhabitants with a renewed spirit of hope and confidence. The movie itself is like the project to restore the old building–it represents a dogged attempt to fashion a feel-good Capra picture for the new century, and like its models from the 1940s, it’s almost brutally manipulative in its exaltation of ordinary America’s essential goodness. At the present juncture in our history, that’s likely to play extremely well with mass audiences; one can expect that its soft-toned but relentless tugging at the heartstrings and calls to true patriotism will attract a goodly number of appreciative viewers, ready to daub their eyes with kleenex between the laughs and smiles. A few of us, however, will have to point out that the picture is rather a crock–well-intentioned and slickly made, to be sure, but a crock nonetheless.
“The Majestic” is set in 1951, and centers on ambitious, apolitical young Hollywood screenwriter Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey) whose career is threatened when he’s accused of communist ties (he once attended a meeting of a front organization during his college days, but only to court a girl). In despair he drives up the California coast and gets into a car accident that leaves him amnesiac. He’s discovered by one of the kindly residents of little Lawson, a sleepy burg notable for the fact that it lost many of its young men during World War II and has never been quite the same. Peter is mistaken for Luke, the long-MIA son of Harry Trimble (Martin Landau), owner of Lawson’s closed-down movie palace–a young man who was presumed to have died a hero. He reluctantly takes up the identity and bonds with his supposed dad and the other grieving townspeople, including Doc Stanton (David Ogden Stiers), mayor Ernie Cole (Jeffrey DeMunn) and wizened fisherman Stan Keller (James Whitmore). He also hesitantly resumes Luke’s old high school romance with Doc’s daughter Adele (Laurie Holden), a newly-minted lawyer. Luke’s apparently miraculous restoration brings the town back to life, a change symbolized by Harry’s decision to reopen the Majestic–a goal that becomes a full-throated community effort. Unfortunately, Peter is still being pursued by the evil minions of the HUAC, led by smarmy counsel Elvin Clyde (Bob Balaban, an obvious stand-in for Roy Cohn), and eventually he’s publicly hauled before the committee and its nasty chairman Doyle (Hal Holbrook). Will Peter take the deal offered him by the studio bosses (Allen Garfield and Ron Rifkin), confess falsely and name the names wicked Clyde has fed to him, or will he adhere to truth and principle, as Adele tells him Luke would have done? And more importantly, will the denizens of Lawson–and particularly Adele–be able to overcome their disappointment at losing Luke a second time and embrace the man now known as Peter?
Well, you’ve undoubtedly seen plenty of Frank Capra’s ain’t-life-wonderful flicks, as well as Darabont’s earlier efforts in the feel-good sweepstakes (the fine 1994 “Shawshank Redemption” and elephantine 1999 “The Green Mile”–both adapted from more cuddly than usual Stephen King stories), so the denouement won’t come as a great surprise. The predictability of it all is accentuated by the director’s habit of having everything move at a very leisurely pace: the picture is like a 45rpm LP played at 33rpm, and for so flimsy a tale to run for a ponderous two-and-a- half hours is unconscionable. The cast is good, though. Carrey is in restrained mode, the sort he adopted for “The Truman Show,” and he proves a likable schlub in early Jimmy Stewart style. Landau hits all the right notes as his starry-eyed would-be dad, milking every laugh and tear he can out of the part; old pros Stiers, Whitmore and DeMunn make a lovable team, Gerry Black has the requisite gravity as the Majestic’s black doorman; and Garfield has some nice moments as the pragmatic, avuncular studio boss. Holden looks fine as Peter/Luke’s love interest, modeling the period dresses nicely, but in terms of personality she’s a trifle nondescript, and the other female characters are pretty much throwaways. Karl Bury smolders decently enough as Bob Leffert, the embittered townsman who returned from the war minus a hand and isn’t well disposed to Luke’s supposed return (perhaps the character’s intended as a nod to “The Best Years of Our Lives”). On the other side, Balaban and Holbrook are suitably oily villains.
But it’s the big finish in which the last two are involved–Peter’s appearance before the HUAC–which comes across as the phoniest part of “The Majestic.” For one thing, it’s extraordinarily curious that no mention is made whatever that at the time the action is supposedly occurring, the U.S. was once again at war–in Korea. From the look of the bucolic, laid-back Lawson, one would hardly imagine that young Americans were dying in action again. This is connected with the falseness of the speech that Appleton eventually makes before the committee, a rah-rah excoriation of their tactics that is–we’re told–greeted with enthusiastic support by the wider public. The fact is that in 1951 the country was still in the grip of McCarthyism, and anyone who confronted HUAC the way Appleton does here would not only have been charged with contempt but probably jailed or forced into exile. It’s nice for us to think that the innate fairness of the common American people will always come through–that was Capra’s constant message, after all, and it makes moviegoers feel good about themselves (even those who, at this moment, might be making unfounded accusations against people of other faiths or ethnic backgrounds). In this day and age, though, it’s a point of view that seems more than a mite meretricious.
Still, “The Majestic” will probably be a big success. Though unbelievably sappy, it’s been cannily crafted to appeal to viewers who will find its mawkish celebration of old-time American values gratifying, especially at a time of national dislocation, and, as with Darabont’s interminable “Green Mile,” it will warm the hearts of innumerable viewers with its simplistic divisions of right from wrong. Curmudgeons–and historians–will point out, however, that it’s that very simplicity which is the problem.