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Wednesday, July 3, 2002

Reeling from a head injury

The Majestic

Rating: * *
Director: Frank Darabont
Running time: 153 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

The line between "sentimental" and "maudlin" -- like the one between "heartwarming" and "trite" -- is a thin one indeed. Director Frank Darabont managed to stay on the good side with his much-loved debut "The Shawshank Redemption," while he walked the line with "The Green Mile." His latest, "The Majestic," shows him taking a flying leap over that line and sinking deep into a quagmire of schmaltz.

News photo
Jim Carrey and Laurie Holden in "The Majestic"

It's about as precipitous a plunge as the one that comes a mere 10 minutes into his film, when blacklisted 1950s Hollywood screenwriter Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey), in a drunken bout of self-pity, drives his car off a rain-slick bridge into the surging waters below.

Pete wakes up washed up on a beach somewhere in California, with all his memory gone. Unfortunately for the viewer, our memories remain intact, and it's all too easy to spot the many films Darabont is stealing from in his attempt to create the mother of all heart-warmers.

First off, Pete is brought back to the small town of Lawson by a kindly old gent. The looks of astonishment that greet Pete's arrival in this Norman Rockwell utopia signal that something's up; it turns out that the townsfolk mistake him for a local hero named Luke Trimble, a boy who went missing, presumed dead, in World War II. When even Luke's father Harry (Martin Landau) and fiancee Adele (Laurie Holden) think it's Luke, Pete starts to accept the role he's being given. Others, like an embittered war vet and Luke's piano teacher, have their doubts.

Sound familiar? Yeah, we've been here before with "The Return of Martin Guerre" and its Hollywood remake, "Sommersby." But Darabont is going for multitextual lifts. Next we learn that Luke's dad Harry used to run a cinema, The Majestic, which in its current disrepair symbolizes the town's past-war malaise. Harry pushes Luke to help him redecorate and revamp the theater. Cue "Cinema Paradiso," as the old man and young man bond over a shared love of cinema, and Harry gets to wax poetic about film's Golden Age. (Which, for critics, is like waving a bottle in front of an alcoholic.)

But wait, there's more: Just as Pete/Luke is settling into his newly found life in this Disney theme-park town, along come the evil Feds to seize our hero and throw him before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Congressional witch-hunters determined to root out real and imagined "commies" from American society.

As Pete/Luke struggles with the idea of easy repentance or career-ending confrontation, the film suddenly becomes "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," with the little guy out to score moral points and shame the system into reform. Even Frank Capra would have winced, though, when Carrey berates the Congressmen, calling for "an America bigger than you can imagine, with a wide open heart." (Clinton would have killed for that line, though, and would have sold it, too, with a little quaver in his voice.)

For a film that deals with such a serious subject -- blacklisted Hollywood writers did see their careers wrecked, while many others tucked their tails under and falsely accused their companions to save their own butts -- "The Majestic" is entirely cowardly in its approach. When Pete is accused of attending a leftist student meeting in college, his defense is that he's apolitical, that he only went to try and meet a girl.

While this highlights the paranoid and heavy-handed nature of the witch-hunters at HUAC, it also plays it safe by ignoring the real issue: So what if he was a communist? Freedom of political expression was supposed to be a guaranteed liberty, but Darabont's film skirts taking a stand on that simple notion. God forbid that Pete, now the embodiment of apple-pie American virtue as Luke, actually was a leftist.

Darabont spends the entire film switching in and out of magic-realist mode in an attempt to fashion a modern fable, a moral lesson in doing the right thing and standing up for . . . whatever. The right to chase girls without government interference, presumably.

Carrey turns in a decent performance, mixing bewilderment with an easy-going charm, as his jaded Hollywood player Pete gradually warms to the charms of the good old-fashioned folk of Lawson. Some of his scenes, where he can't convince himself that he is Luke -- but goes along with it for the good of others -- show us the depth Carrey can bring to even a bad film.

But a bad film this is, with Darabont's shameless pastiche of Capra et al. compounded by minor characters who seem like windup cliches, right down to the wizened old black man, a Darabont fave. Imagine "The Truman Show" with its idyllic town played as straight-up nostalgia instead of giant cosmic prank, and you'd be getting close to the feel of this clunker. Darabont may have finally moved beyond prison walls with this one, but "The Majestic" seems equally claustrophobic, imprisoned by the desire to mimic past cinematic glories.

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