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The Majestic

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: The Majestic

Starring: Jim Carrey, Martin Landau
Director: Frank Darabont
Rated: PG
RunTime: 154 Minutes
Release Date: December 2001
Genres: Drama, Romance, Comedy

*Also starring: Amanda Detmer, Laurie Holden, Bob Balaban, Ron Rifkin, David Ogden Stiers, Hal Holbrooke, Matt Damon

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Who says that small-town people are uptight, ultra- conservative Bible thumpers, contemptuous of the Bill of Rights and committed only to their insular values and constipated gentility? Frank Capra never believed that when he propelled Columbia into a major-league studio with his films about idealistic individuals, improbable heroes battling cynicism in works like "It Happened One Night," "Mr Deeds Goes to Town," "You Can't Take It with You,' and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Neither does Frank Darabont who with "The Majestic" takes us back to the America that could be found not that far from Los Angeles in the 1950's, a story by Michael Sloane filmed in the northern reaches of California. If Darabont's Norman-Rockwell characters have traces of cynicism--which well they might have since in the town of Lawson, CA in 1951 (actually filmed in Ferndale, Mendocino and Ft. Bragg)--the pessimism is justified since the village community had lost sixty-six of its young men in World War II. One of the men, Luke Trimble, had been missing and considered dead, only to turn up presumably, alive and well if with a bad case of amnesia, nine and one-half years after his reported demise.

"The Majestic" is a retro story made even more retreated in time than others of the genre such as "The Truman Show" and "Kate and Leopold" because there is no sci-fi element present: no time machine, no window over the Brooklyn Bridge through which a person could travel back through the decades. Yet in some ways there are themes that could have been torn from the front pages of today's newspapers, as we look at President Bush's moves to restrict civil liberties and require suspected terrorists to be tried by military courts-martial instead of civilian juries. The fear of domestic Communism parallels our own dread of potential terrorists in our mist who plot (in the imagination of some) the destruction of buildings, the poisoning of our reservoirs, and the release of biological and chemical weapons throughout the land.

In one of the story's few flat-out humorous sequences a group of producers are sitting around brainstorming a new movie (Matt Damon, Rob Reiner and Carl Reiner behind the camera) while Peter Appleton, who has just seen the release of his first film, sits in contemplation. The tale switches from farce to melodrama in a flash as Pete is accused by the House Unamerican Activities Committee of being or having been a member of the Communist Party USA (he actually did nothing more than attend a meeting of a local cell with his girl friend, eager to impress the young woman who pictured herself as the working person's friend). Blacklisted in Hollywood in much the way that "The Hollywood Ten" such as Dalton Trumbo were in real life, he gets drunk and accidentally drives his car over a local bridge, hitting his head and becoming afflicted with amnesia. Nursed to health by Lawson's doctor (David Ogden Stiers), he is mistaken for missing soldier Luke Trimble, is introduced to "his" former girl friend, Adele Stanton (Laurie Holden), and welcome to the home of "his" father, Harry Trimble (Martin Landau). What follows in this comedy of errors gives Peter the chance unwittingly to choose a new life, a fresh start, free from the tentacles of a Big Government which had become as rabidly anti-Communist as we today are wary of Mideast villains. Of course it's only a matter of time before the government agents catch up with him and confront him with yet another choice: squeal on your friends in the Communist Party (though he was never a Communist and thereby had no friends in the Party), or face the loss of a career and possibly jail for contempt.

Will he shuck off his former life of big-city cynicism and materialistic movie studios with their dumb ideas for making big box office? Or upon recovering his memory will he return to his career as a budding screenwriter, selling out to the misguided and ambitious members of a right-wing congressional committee and to the big Hollywood studios?

Those who will point thumbs down on "The Majestic" will be dismayed by its cornball, Capra-esque qualities, calling it nothing more than a Christmas holiday movie to bring us good cheer by dredging up dated dramatic material. But say what you want about the sin of sentimentality in stories: this one works. It works because we're inundated during the holiday season with airy and meaningless comedies like "Joe Somebody" and the usual explosive blockbusters like "Black Hawk Down." There's just enough anachronistic dialogue tossed into this hokey plot to give a present-day audience some contemporary grins and best of all Jim Carrey has proved himself to have the depth to play a wholly serious character standing up to the authorities as would Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" or as would Gregory Peck to the racists in "To Kill a Mockingbird." Carrey is surrounded by a fine ensemble including James Whitmore as an aging, good-hearted citizen who brings the young screenwriter into the town, Martin Landau as the forlorn father whose life turns around when he believes he has found his son, and Laurie Holden, who resembles a young Kathleen Turner and romances the confused would-be Communist so well that you just know what choices the man will make.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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