The Majestic

We all have times in our lives that make us wish things had happened differently. For Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey), that moment comes just as his life seems to be coming true. A budding screenwriter, he has scored his first big credit, on a "B" picture, Sand Pirates of the Sahara, that opens at the Grauman's Chinese Theater on the bill with The African Queen.

On the eve of his triumph, Peter gets accused of having been a communist in college. This is the era of the Red Scare and the McCarthy Witch hunts, and Peter's career may be ruined before it can really take off.

As important as all this may have been historically, it really only serves as an excuse to bring Peter to The Majestic. And though the film wants really badly to be a feel good homage to the work of Frank Capra, giving it a real world background threatens to drag it down.

Not that Capra was afraid of reality; his films always flirted with personal disaster. But they also dealt with men of integrity pushed to their limits; Peter is limited by his lack of integrity.

Faced with ruin, he drinks himself near senseless and accidentally drives off a bridge. Waking up on a beach near Lawson, a small town somewhere in Northern California, he might as well be in Oz. He has no memory of his life in Hollywood, but he does resemble Luke Trimble, a young man from Lawson killed in World War II. At least, Luke's father Harry (a somewhat manic Martin Landau trolling for another award) takes him to be Luke, and the rest of the town soon follows suit.

Only two suspicious voices raise, those of Luke's fiancée Adele (Laurie Holden) and Bob Leffert (Karl Bury), one of the few sons of Lawson who returned from the war. Adele puts her doubts aside, though, as she sees Luke re-awaken the town and his father's spirit, centered in The Majestic, the theater that the Trimbles had run until Luke's "death."

Yes, The Majestic intends to be a feel good movie that celebrates the healing power of the cinema. Earnest and heartfelt, it has its moments, and we could do worse this year than echo Capra. But the screenplay, by Michael Sloane, stitches together so many elements from the master (and another, Preston Sturges, whose Hail The Conquering Hero also had a case of mistaken identity and war heroism) that it's more like Frankenstein than Frank.

The film has the requisite archetypes standing in for characters. Doc Stanton (David Ogden Stiers) is the kind of doctor they don't make anymore, making house calls and not asking for proof of insurance. Though Adele has studied to become a lawyer and passes the Bar exam, she's really there to look pretty and steadfastly inspire, just like Donna Reed. Why, she even has a quirky nervous hiccup problem, a character bit quickly mentioned, demonstrated, and then never heard from again.

That it works as well as it does must be attributed to the film's truly great cast. Stiers, Jeffrey DeMunn and James Whitmore all have a great likeability as the Lawson's leading lights. As the suspicious but yielding Adele, Holden gives weight to an underwritten role, though she seems too much a modern girl to fit in 1952.

In Capraesque tradition, director Frank Darabont has not skimped on his minor characters, either. The staff of The Majestic consists of ticket taker Emmett Smith (Gerry Black) and candy clerk/town music teacher Irene Terwilliger (Susan Willis), both of whom have memorable personalities. They could easily fit in the last movie The Majestic showed before it closed -- It's A Wonderful Life.

As for Carrey, he tackles what may be the hardest role of his career: being just another joe. He may not quite be there yet, but this is a good step forward. When he flashes an embarrassed smile, he certainly has the star wattage, though in a couple of places you'll be positive something wacky is about to take place.

This role does have more emotional depth than Truman Burbank, and in a few scenes Carrey shows a side that movies have not allowed him before now. Peter experiences real love, real loss and real growth as a character. If Carrey finally gets his coveted Oscar nomination, the Academy has committed worse crimes.

But not even the energy of this cast can keep the film from dragging in places. Darabont has a love of the stately, which worked for The Shawshank Redemption but started to get wearing in The Green Mile. It hurts here, because though we want to be moved, the major set pieces linger just a little too long. Emotional struggles play a little too obviously.

And despite a lot that works, at two and a half hours, that Capraesque cathartic rush at the end may be just to stand up and get blood flowing to the butt again.

What's It Worth? $6.50

Derek McCaw

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