Martin Guerre visits Bedford Falls in “The Majestic,” a thick slice of bogus inspirational cheese that only makes itself look bad by recycling so many golden movie memories. Frank Darabont’s latest marathon puffs itself up with an enormous sense of self-importance by injecting weighty issues relating to the U.S. Constitution and the Hollywood blacklist into a tale of an amnesiac embraced by a small town in the post-war U.S. Bursting with cliched notions of down-home Americana that it wants to pass off as profundity, this elaborately appointed production will get a running start at the box office thanks to the toplined Jim Carrey, whose performance is disappointingly reactive until the very end, and pic’s obvious strokes will sucker the emotionally gullible. But unless you really can fool all the people all the time, critical and commercial results should be disappointing.
The main reference point for the original script by Michael Sloane, whose previous screen credit is “Hollywood Boulevard II,” is unmistakably Frank Capra. Carrey plays a decent but conflicted man pushed to an emotional epiphany by the misbehavior of so-called guardians of the American way of life and ultimately to a highly public denunciation of said individuals and an affirmation of the nation’s bedrock values. It’s worth contemplating, however, that the hidden auteur behind the picture may be a corporate one, in this case Castle Rock Entertainment; the company’s recent venture “Hearts in Atlantis” was also about a mysterious stranger who materializes in a sleepy burg in mid-century and is pursued by grim men in long coats and ominous black cars.
Asserting himself as the most deliberate of Hollywood directors since late-career George Stevens, Darabont intros Carrey’s Peter Appleton as a B-movie studio writer who believes he’s on the verge of his breakthrough to A status when he’s paged for questioning by the House Un-American Activities Committee about alleged commie connections back in his college days. Although his would-be red activities consisted of attending a “questionable” student org to impress a girl, Peter drowns his sorrows in drink as he sees his career evaporating. He then drives toward Northern California, where he runs his beautiful car off a bridge and promptly passes out.
With the film set in 1951, it’s hard not to think of a film made the year before that also centered on a second-tier screenwriter who embarked on an unusual odyssey — William Holden’s Joe Gillis in “Sunset Boulevard” — and equally hard not to wish you were watching his exploits again instead.
As it is, Peter is found by local geezer Stan (James Whitmore) and brought into downtown Lawson, a picture-postcard coastal community where everyone thinks the dazed young fella looks kinda familiar. After Stan explains that the town is still reeling from having lost 62 of its own in WWII, Peter is taken as one of them by Harry Trimble (Martin Landau), a widower who’s certain Peter is actually his son Luke, who never came back from the war.
Not quite as certain but willing to be convinced is Adele (Laurie Holden), the blond beauty who was Luke’s girlfriend a decade back. She’s gone to law school in the interim, but is still available, and she fills in the blank-minded stranger on the details of their long-ago courtship. It would have been interesting to see if Peter would have gone along with the game if the woman who made moves on him didn’t look just like Grace Kelly, but in any event, he’s swept along on the enthusiastic willingness of the town to embrace him into the fold.
After cross-referencing “Hail the Conquering Hero” in the citizens’ eagerness to believe the unbelievable, Darabont and Sloane proceed to turn “The Last Picture Show” on its head by making Harry the owner of a defunct cinema. The only derelict building in the otherwise pristine town, the Majestic looks like a lost cause, but Harry, who has taken “Luke” in to live with him in his apartment above the theater, is suddenly inspired to resurrect his forlorn movie house.
With the help of Luke, aged ticket taker Emmett (Gerry Black), mousy concessions lady Irene (Susan Willis) and Adele, along with significant contributions from the town’s merchants, Harry sees his dream come true when the entire community turns out for the opening-night relaunch, the magnificent marquee lit up with “An American in Paris.” Luke’s romance with Adele continues apace, and there are warm and fuzzy feelings all around.
It’s all too good to be true, of course. A potentially interesting story angle — that Peter/Luke can’t recall anything about his life but perfectly remembers movies he’s seen — remains undeveloped thematically but is used as a convenient story trigger at a crucial late moment.
Eventually, the long arm of the FBI and HUAC reaches into quiet Lawson to snare the “missing commie,” disillusioning the locals and thrusting the suddenly recovered Peter into the unwelcome glare of TV lights and hostile questioning at a jam-packed hearing.
Climax hinges on whether the previously uncommitted and self-serving Peter will read a sell-out prepared statement to the panel or stand up for the values of the “real” America he has recently discovered in Lawson, particularly as impressed upon him by new lawyer Adele. Given that the film positively swells with righteousness, there can be little doubt which way the reluctant hero will tilt in the end.
Much like “Hearts in Atlantis,” in fact, “The Majestic” is laboriously precious, dawdling over every minute detail of plot, characterization and theme, fetishizing the intensely prettified physical details and wallowing in its counterfeit notions of nobility. The world is divided into people who will swallow this sort of hooey whole and those who will gag on it, but by any standard Darabont and Sloane are working in a zone well beyond safe limits of sentimental patriotism and “inspirational” courage.
Although he’s onscreen most of the time, Carrey hasn’t nearly so much to do here as he did in his previous “serious” acting outings, “The Truman Show” and “Man on the Moon.” Stripped of a personality through most of the film, he is mainly required to smile, look vaguely confused at times and, generally, look pleasant as countless others, especially his “dad” and “girlfriend,” explain his past to him and tell him how happy they are to have him back.
The only chance Carrey really gets to speak up is when he finds his true self at the committee hearing, and whatever force this has is immediately undone by the dramatically fashionable but ludicrously implausible spectacle of having the press corps and politicos give Peter a big ovation after his testimony.
Landau indulges his many opportunities to look misty-eyed and sentimental, and also gets to deliver the big lines that undoubtedly will be excerpted in clips ad nauseum; trying to rouse excitement about reviving the Majestic, his Harry denigrates the new invention, television, then raves about how, in his day, movies were “magic” and the stars were “gods.” Holden, best known for her recurring role on “The X-Files,” unquestionably fills the bill as the ideal girl next door. Supporting turns in townspeople roles are mostly humble and folksy in the extreme, while Bob Balaban makes his HUAC inquisitor into a particularly rabid species of right-wing crusader.
Technically, pic is polished to a fare-thee-well. Mark Isham’s score, abetted by a trunkful of period tunes, intros strains of nuance and complexity that are absent from the script.