“The Majestic” isn’t. Rather it’s “The Film That Wasn’t There,” a derivative, self-satisfied fable that couldn’t be more treacly and simple-minded if it tried. And it tries, oh, how it tries.
Director Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile”) has always had a heart-on-his-sleeve passion for the obvious, always gloried in overemphasizing what really doesn’t need to be underlined at all.
Darabont’s in his element with this story, written by longtime friend Michael Sloane, of a Hollywood screenwriter circa 1951 who discovers what’s really important in life. Hint: It’s not a big salary or a great table at the studio commissary. No, no, a thousand times no. Playing Peter Appleton, a B-picture writer under contract to HHS Studios, is Jim Carrey, making what is clearly a bid to be taken seriously as a dramatic star. Despite having to deal with lines like “I never meant to hurt anyone, least of all you,” Carrey does a creditable job as a leading man, but it’s wasted. The problem is, there’s nothing here worth the time and energy to lead.
It’s not, as the filmmakers will probably believe, that sour critics have difficulty responding to any kind of upbeat story. It’s that everything is so ineptly done. Even the film’s flagrant steals from classics like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “Hail the Conquering Hero” are clumsy and overdone.
What is most frustrating about “The Majestic” is that it makes goodness and decency, virtues that can be exciting and inspirational, into themes so tedious it is possible to doze off without fearing you’ll miss anything worth staying awake for.
Making all this, if possible, worse, is that “The Majestic” is intent on setting its story against the background of the Hollywood blacklist, a serious period that gets the full cartoon treatment here. The film’s press kit may open with the celebrated quote from Dalton Trumbo about there being no heroes or villains in that period, only victims, but Darabont and company are intent on painting the scene in the harshest blacks and whites.
Appleton is introduced daydreaming in a story conference while studio executives spitball idiotic changes to his new script. He’s a contented creature of the business, and the blacklist only crosses his mind when he sees it in a newsreel at Grauman’s Chinese preceding his first on-screen credit, “Sand Pirates of the Sahara,” a dismal B-picture that manages to be more fun than the film we’re stuck with watching.
The next morning, everything changes. Because he accompanied an attractive girl to a meeting of the suspect Bread Instead of Bullets Club back while he was in college, Appleton is suspended from his studio job and finds his entire career in jeopardy.
Distraught, the writer gets predictably drunk and takes a drive up the California coast. The next thing he knows, he doesn’t know anything: When kindly old coot Stan Keller (James Whitmore) discovers him on a beach in the morning, Appleton remembers neither his name nor how he got there.
The nearby mythical hamlet of Lawson turns out to be a swell place to have amnesia. It’s the kind of town where people will literally give you the shirt off their back and the eggs off their plate, where never is heard a discouraging word and everyone is so doggone nice it makes Carrey’s former “Truman Show” home of Seahaven Island seem like the residence of Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. Everyone is especially well-disposed to this lost soul because old Harry Trimble (Martin Landau) is convinced that the newcomer is none other than his Medal of Honor-winning son Luke, reported missing in combat 91/2 years ago. Lawson had lost its spirit after having so many of its young men killed in the war, but now, now there is reason to celebrate.
Although the amnesiac is far from sure he is anyone’s long-lost son, he chooses to go with the flow, which includes taking up again with fiancee Adele Stanton (Laurie Holden) and helping his dad refurbish the town’s only movie theater, the Majestic, which has fallen into grim disrepair.
Everything might have stayed just that happy and perky if J. Edgar Hoover’s minions weren’t convinced that the disappeared writer might be the head of “a nest of Communists that would make the Rosenbergs look like Ma and Pa Kettle.” Actually, it’s “The Majestic” that looks like Ma and Pa Kettle, though even the films about that kindly old couple were less simplistic and contrived than what we have here. Though Appleton’s amnesia allows him to remember movies but not his life, this is one film everyone involved may want to forget.
MPAA rating: PG, for language and mild thematic elements. Times guidelines: all very tame.
Jim Carrey...Pete Appleton/Luke Trimble
Martin Landau...Harry Trimble
Laurie Holden...Adele Stanton
David Ogden Stiers...Doc Stanton
James Whitmore...Stan Keller
Castle Rock Entertainment presents, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures and NPV Entertainment, a Darkwoods production, released by Warner Bros. Producer Frank Darabont. Executive producer Jim Behnke. Director Frank Darabont. Screenplay Michael Sloane. Cinematographer David Tattersall. Editor Jim Page. Costumes Karyn Wagner. Music Mark Isham. Production design Gregory Melton. Art director Tom Walsh. Set decorator Natali Pope. Running time: 2 hours, 32 minutes.
In general release.