Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Maybe filmmakers shouldn’t try too hard to emulate the work of other directors. Sometimes these homages work fairly well, but usually they come across as pale imitations of the original material, and I don’t know what the new filmmakers have to gain. I mean, if you create a flick in the Hitchcock style and it succeeds, you still come across as just a wannabe, while if your effort flops, you seem like nothing more than a crummy wannabe.
I don’t know what possessed director Frank Darabont to so openly emulate the style and themes of Frank Capra with his 2001 release, The Majestic. This flick marks Darabont’s third directorial effort, and the first two did quite well. 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption broke no box office records, but it found a good-sized audience, and it also nabbed quite a lot of critical praise, including a nod for Best Picture. 1999’s The Green Mile didn’t do quite as well with the critics, but it still got a lot of praise as well as another Best Picture nomination and it made a nice piece of change along the way.
Between Darabont’s small but solid track record and the presence of megastar Jim Carrey in the lead, The Majestic had smash hit written all over it. The movie also enjoyed some strong buzz before it arrived on screens.
However, none of these factors meant much. The Majestic received mediocre reviews and made a mere $27 million at the box office. It quickly went from supposed Oscar contender to forgotten flop.
Personally, I think the film deserved its quick demise. While not an unpleasant piece of work, The Majestic never comes across as anything more than warmed over Capra-corn without the spark and spirit of the original.
Set in 1951 Hollywood, at the start of The Majestic we meet aspiring screenwriter Peter Appleton (Carrey). The author of a new release called Sand Pirates of the Sahara, he seems on the rise, and he enjoys the company of sexy actress Sandra Sinclair (Amanda Detmer). However, his train soon starts to derail when the feds discover that he once attended a meeting of a college group with apparent Communist leanings. Peter only went to the session to impress a girl, but the powers-that-be don’t care, and his career soon falters. The studio cancels his contract and he faces possible jail time for his “Communist tendencies”.
Peter goes on a drunken bender and decides to take a drive up the Pacific Coast Highway. However, he encounters a storm and skids off of a bridge into a river. Peter gets washed away by the stream and eventually becomes knocked unconscious when head meets concrete.
Stan Keller (James Whitmore), a local resident of a little town called Lawson, finds Peter and takes him to safety. As the two go through the burg, folks notice that Peter bears a strong resemblance to Luke Trimble, a local boy who apparently died in World War II. Lawson suffered unusually high losses during the War, and they embrace the apparent return of a favorite son.
The knock to his head erased Peter’s memory, so he believes he may well be Luke. He takes on Luke’s life, which involves interaction with father Harry (Martin Landau) and girlfriend Adele (Laurie Stanton). All seems well, as “Luke’s” return restores life to the depressed little town. Harry decides that he and “Luke” should re-open The majestic, the local movie house that went dormant after the War.
They do this, and Lawson becomes a cheerful place again. “Luke” also gets to know Adele, and those romantic sparks strike. However, darkness sits on the horizon. Nagging questions of Luke/Peter’s identity remain; as time passes, “Luke” starts to regain his memory and tries to figure out who he really is. In addition, the feds still seek Peter, and they eventually locate him in Lawson. In due time, we’ll discover who Peter/Luke really is, and he’ll also face his time in a hearing with the House Un-American Affairs Committee.
Will all this resolve happily? I won’t say, but if you’re not sure, you need to get out of the house more often. Not that I regard films with foregone conclusions as a bad thing; I value the ride itself more than the final outcome.
Unfortunately, The Majestic never offers anything that approaches the level of Capra’s better efforts, and it usually seems like a bland and lackluster imitation. Carrey tries his best to channel Jimmy Stewart, but he fails. Nothing about Carrey’s performance appears overtly bad, but he simply lacks any real heart or humanity. Carrey is an excellent physical comedian who wants desperately to be taken seriously. More power to him, but I have yet to see too much evidence that he possesses the skills to make this transition. In other dramatic flicks, he’s shown competent acting abilities, but he never goes past that level. Carrey’s a decent dramatic performer at best; he only receives so much attention because of his comedic success.
The Majestic features a strong cast, but all the performers seem to sleepwalk through their parts. None of them stand out to me, and I feel the chemistry between Carrey and Holden appears wan and flat. As with Carrey, I can’t say that any of them do poorly, but they fail to bring the life and energy that the project needs.
For a self-consciously anti-ironic movie, The Majestic includes a few too many “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” moments for my liking. The scenes in which Peter meets with studio executives feature some recognizable voices, as does a voice-over from one of Luke’s letters to Adele. Those moments distracted me and seemed unnecessarily cute; I tried to identify the participants, and that pulled me out the story. Also, a joke about J. Edgar Hoover wearing a dress seemed silly to me; it took the movie out of its period and also contrasted with its generally earnest tone.
Director Darabont also allows the movie to take far too long. The Majestic runs 152 minutes, and that’s easily 45 minutes too much. The scenes that show the revival of Lawson last forever and they go nowhere. We know where the story will eventually proceed, so Darabont should have expedited matters. The movie starts with some interesting material in regard to Peter and the Communist witch-hunt, but once he lands in Lawson, matters come to a screeching halt, and the movie becomes a serious drag.
Probably the greatest weakness I find in The Majestic relates to the lack of charm and spark I mentioned. Sure, Capra’s movies are melodramatic and sentimental, but the director could pull off those attitudes well. You bought into their sappiness and didn’t care.
Darabont lacks the skill to make those elements work. He tries hard to pull heartstrings and tug at emotional tendencies, but none of them connect. Instead, the film comes across as excessively manipulative and falls flat. I never got caught up in the story or the characters and really didn’t care what would happen to them.
For a sentimental character drama like The Majestic, that lack of passion marks the kiss of death. I applaud Darabont’s attempt to create a “throwback” movie that echoes the attitudes of the Thirties and Forties. Unfortunately, he didn’t make a very interesting or entertaining throwback.