A complaint often heard at the theater is: "They sure don’t make movies like they used to." The Majestic refutes that lament, for it’s exactly the kind of movie that Frank Capra would make today. That Mr. Capra has been dead since 1991 might explain the film’s glacial pace, and in fact it largely is a movie that Capra has indeed already made several times before. But even given its wholesale borrowing from the past, The Majestic serves as a warm and loving ode to the magic of film and the golden age of movie making.
Jim Carrey stars as Capra-esque everyman Peter Appleton, a young Hollywood screenwriter. It’s 1951 and Peter’s been named to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. His studio bosses take the low cowardly road, suspending him, and Peter goes for a long drive north along the California coast to ponder his blacklisted fate. In Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life George Bailey considers jumping off a bridge, and here Peter drives off one – after compassionately swerving to avoid hitting a possum. In the ensuing accident he hits his head and develops amnesia, washing up near the bucolic town of Lawson. He’s mistaken for local boy Luke Trimble, a long-lost (and presumed dead) World War II hero. Lawson lost 62 of "its boys" during the war and badly needs some good news; Peter/Luke is obviously it. Even Luke’s father Harry (Martin Landau) is convinced his son has finally returned. Harry owns and lives above The Majestic, a defunct movie theater that he and his "son" restore and reopen, revitalizing the town and people of Lawson along with it.
Director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) tries for inspiring moments and, like walnuts in holiday cookies, themes from past Capra classics are scattered throughout the film. Numerous paeans to the wonders of small-town living are shown through a Norman Rockwell-like eye. There’s a Meet John Doe moment of angst and mob retribution, and a Big Scene in Washington DC lifted from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
The film diverges from its Capra underpinnings in one significant way: for most of the story its protagonist is missing the dark side that usually shades Capra films. Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey is bitter and frustrated over being stuck in Bedford Falls. Gary Cooper’s John Doe knows he’s a mercenary fraud. But Peter Appleton – even his name is 100% Grade A Wholesome – has no skeletons in his closet, at least none that he’s aware of. That his mind is a blank and his subterfuge unintentional makes Peter even more squeaky clean than the usual Capra hero. It’s Carrey’s most restrained performance to date, as he abandons his usual physical and facial tics to portray Peter/Luke as a totally clean slate that Lawson’s townspeople are more than happy to sketch in for him, once piece at a time. Eventually they’ve rebuilt Luke as they need to remember him, not necessarily as he truly ever was.
The film is not strictly a Capra clone, however. Michael Sloane’s script also serves tribute to a bygone era where Hollywood turned out dozens of films a week and America dressed up in its Sunday best and thronged to plush movie palaces to see them. Yes, Virginia, there once was a time where theaters had only one screen, showed double features, and the ticket-seller was an adult in a suit and tie who said, "Thank you, sir – and enjoy the show."
Numerous films from 1951 are reverently celebrated on The Majestic’s glowing neon marquee: An American in Paris, The Day The Earth Stood Still, A Streetcar Named Desire, The African Queen. (The film cheats just a bit, using 1954’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers for its anti-McCarthyism subtext.)Even the era’s "B" pictures get a nod, Peter’s own Sand Pirates of the Sahara gets a campy and affectionate screening. The clear message: most of today’s focus group- and CGI-driven efforts pale by comparison. If there was any doubt that the film’s makers are wistful for The Way We Were (and not the 1973 Redford/Streisand opus), Hank is trotted out to deliver a glowing soliloquy on what the movies mean to him, to all of us. It’s to Landau’s credit than his delivery makes the speech more memorable than maudlin.
The Majestic isn’t content to merely tug at the heartstrings. It’s a film that firmly plants both feet and yanks with both hands. But it does so without a trace of cynicism or irony, and, like a persistent puppy, will manage to endear itself to many. The more curmudgeon-like will find its misty-eyed optimism cloying, but then – they shoo puppies off their laps, too.
– Bob Aulert