"Your America is bitter, and cruel, and small."—Peter Appleton
Yeah? Well, your story is sappy, boorish, and seemingly never-ending, Mr. Appleton. So there.
Facts of the Case
In this heavy-handed drama from director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile), rube Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey, Dumb And Dumber) is grinding away as a B-list screenwriter in Hollywood of the early 1950s when he learns he's been tagged as a communist by the House Un-American Activities Committee for attending a single meeting of "Bread Instead of Bullets" in college, though he only attended as a ruse to get inside the frillies of a dame who happened to be a communist sympathizer. Appleton gets rip-roaring drunk and drives off a bridge when the studio decides he's no longer employable (AKA blacklists him), only to wash up in the small California town of Lawson with a cut on his forehead and no knowledge of who he is or how he got there.
Luckily for everyone who paid eight bucks to see the movie, Appleton is the spit and image of one Luke Trimble, a Lawson boy who, in acts above and beyond the call of duty, saved the lives of eight soldiers during World War II, then ended up missing in action and presumed dead by his dad (Martin Landau, Ed Wood) and the rest of the townsfolk. Before the war, Harry Trimble and his son ran a now-defunct movie theater, The Majestic, and it's not long after Luke/Peter's miraculous return that Harry gets the idea to bring the dump back to life. Peter, meanwhile, manages to hook up with Luke's childhood sweetheart, Adele Stanton (Laurie Holden, The X-Files), a liberated woman of the '50s who's working toward a law degree. Romantic montages intermixed with restoring-the-theater montages follow.
Everything is peachy until a screening of Appleton's B-movie, Sand Pirates of the Sahara, jogs his memory at the very moment Harry keels over from a heart attack and HUAC decides the accused Red should be tracked down and punished for absconding. Rejected by the people of Lawson, who are convinced he purposely deceived them, and under pressure from the studio, Appleton must decide whether he will save his career by naming names to HUAC or emulate the selfless hero Luke Trimble, paying whatever price is required for his personal integrity.
The Majestic's problems are richly textured and multi-layered. Let's begin with the politics (I hate having to bring politics into a DVD review, so I swear I'll try to keep this as brief as possible). The film's simplistic take on the blacklists of the 1940s and '50s may have played 15 years ago, but we now live in a world in which the Soviet Union has fallen, and the archives have begun to open, and facts have been revealed that differ to a large extent with the mythology that built up over a 50-year period regarding the group of nine screenwriters and one director, known as the Hollywood Ten, who have been lionized for their refusal to cooperate with HUAC. We know now that many of the names named weren't innocents like Peter Appleton, guys who attended a single meeting of a group they didn't even realize was communist, but were men in fact influencing the content of Hollywood films based on direct orders from Moscow. And orders from Moscow in the '40s and '50s were orders from Stalin. My personal politics are pretty simple in this regard: I have no sympathy for anyone who even tacitly supports a dictator who is engaged in the systematic murder of tens of millions of human beings. I couldn't care less whether that dictator's political bent is far-left or far-right. I'm funny that way. When you boil it down to human lives, Stalinists and Nazis occupy the same moral turf, don't you think? The lesson we ought to take home from the opening of the Soviet archives is that the fact Senator McCarthy was an a-hole whose tactics were completely out of line, doesn't by default make good guys of the accused. Life, after all, is only that simple in Hollywood fantasies brought to the screen by guys like Frank Darabont. (Rumor, by the way, is Darabont is currently hard at work on the script for the fourth Indiana Jones movie. The flick's supposedly set in the '50s, so maybe we can look forward to Indy doing battle with the evil HUAC…and Elia Kazan can be written in as Senator McCarthy's vile lapdog, the groveling, reptilian sort of character Peter Lorre would've owned back in the day.)
Okay, so at least half of you probably now think I'm off my rocker. All I can say is take a look for yourself. Documents from the Soviet archives are available for your perusal if you search them out, as is analysis of said documents. They're enlightening. As Fox Mulder would say, "The truth is out there." Anyway, let's get off of politics. I'd much rather talk about the film as a film.
When The Majestic first hit theaters, just about every critic on the face of the planet was comparing it to the work of Frank Capra. That, frankly, is an insult to Capra. It is sappy and sentimental, which is true of the weakest moments in Capra's oeuvre. However, the image of Capra as wholesome cheese-merchant is over-played. Take a look at It Happened One Night and you'll see a film that's smart and funny and can hold its own against the best screwball comedies of Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks. Darabont's film, by contrast, is ham-fisted and never funny. And that's the most glaring problem: the tone is all wrong. Granted it's a drama, but the flick takes itself too seriously. Had it taken on some of the characteristics of a screwball comedy, it might have worked. Instead, it plays like Darabont and Carrey's desperate plea for Oscar consideration, spilling over with lush-for-lush's-sake cinematography and gushy acting moments, as though the whole thing were crafted for the purpose of providing the Academy with dramatic clips to play before the opening of envelopes. Darabont had at his disposal a leading man with great comic timing; he should have used him. For his part, Carrey needs to learn there's a middle ground between talk-out-your-butt comedy and morose, self-serious drama. Maybe he should forego the massive paychecks and think about working with a director who could put all his talents to use. Wes Anderson comes to mind.
Even at his sappiest, Capra has the excuse of being a product of his time and of the studio system—there were just certain conventions (like tidy endings) even the most influential of directors couldn't bypass. The Majestic ends with a speech by Appleton that is so corny and hackneyed (and powerful enough in the world of the film to right all wrongs) that it's simply astonishing someone would, without irony, include it in a modern film. Its laughable naïveté outstrips anything in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.
Most damaging to The Majestic, though, is the extent to which its story of a man mistaken for a World War II hero reminded me of Preston Sturges' Hail the Conquering Hero. Sturges' hero, Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (played to perfection by Eddie Braken), is about a thousand times more interesting than Peter Appleton (their names alone should tell you that) because of his moral ambiguity: Woodrow knows he's a fraud and doesn't deserve the honors lavished upon him by his home town. Sturges plays that ambiguity for comedy and drama like Yo-yo Ma plays the cello; it's a beautiful thing to behold. Woodrow's behavior, when you take time to consider it, is reprehensible, but Sturges plays the characters and audience so skillfully, you can't help but like the guy. It begs the question, why would screenwriter Michael Sloane (whose only other writing credit in IMDb is Hollywood Boulevard II, starring former porn queen and Charlie Sheen plaything Ginger Lynn Allen) put himself in a position to be compared with a man unequaled in his ability to write smart, funny dialogue, crafting comedies that hold their own as serious works of art? I'll never know the answer to that one.
All right, so in case you haven't gotten the point, I don't care all that much for this movie. What about the DVD? The 1.85:1 anamorphic video is rock-solid gorgeous, presenting cinematography that is warm, rich, and beautiful. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is adequate: dialogue is clean (which is most important in this film), but showcase moments like Appleton's car crash could be more robust.
Supplements are limited. There are six or eight additional scenes, each running a minute or two in length and thankfully tossed to the cutting room floor instead of left in a film that, for my tastes, is still too long. The "Cast Highlights" simply lists the actors in the film—Carrey's is the only entry with an abridged filmography—while "Crew Highlights" provides filmographies for Darabont and screenwriter Michael Sloane. Not listed among the features on the snapper case is a text-based entry called "The Hollywood Ten," a highly cursory overview of the HUAC hearings and blacklisting that goes out of its way to give one last kick to the nuts of Elia Kazan. Suffice it to say, the spin is a bit different than what I had to say in the first paragraph of this section of the review.
The best supplement of all, though, is the five-minute Sand Pirates of the Sahara segment, a portion of Appleton's B-movie which appears in even smaller clips within The Majestic proper. Presented in beautiful black and white, Sand Pirates of the Sahara has the look of The Mummy starring Boris Karloff, or the sort of B-flick that inspired Raiders of the Lost Ark. Best yet, the lantern-jawed hero of the film is played by Bruce Campbell, the always entertaining presence is such modern B-movies as The Evil Dead and Maniac Cop. I sort of wish Sand Pirates of the Sahara had been the feature film, and The Majestic the movie within a movie.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I know I've slapped Frank Darabont around like a tether ball in this review, but I honestly don't believe he's a poor filmmaker. I enjoyed The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, but the minor weaknesses in those films—their occasional obviousness, patness, and preachiness—blossom into the defining characteristics of The Majestic. It's a shame. I had higher hopes for this film, and that's why I've been so harsh. The Majestic is not the worst film ever made; it's a film that had much potential but was ultimately mishandled, and that's more frustrating to me as a viewer than a film that just plain sucks.
One of the reasons I had high hopes is I think Jim Carrey generally rises to the challenge when presented with demanding roles, and you can't go wrong with guys like Martin Landau, Bob Balaban (Gosford Park), Hal Holbrook (Creepshow), and David Ogden Stiers (M*A*S*H). Indeed, the acting in the film is top-notch.
Also, as I noted above, the movie is beautifully shot. Darabont and cinematographer David Tattersall, who also shot The Green Mile, are no slouches—they know how to capture beautiful images. Unfortunately in this case, they're beautiful images in the service of dreck. I really have only one gripe when it comes to the look of the film, and it can probably be thrown in the nit-pick category: it's got a bit of that fake, TV-movie-version-of-the-'50s look about it. I mean, did everyone in 1950s America wear brand new clothing and drive sparklingly mint cars that appear as though they just rolled off the showroom floor? The Japanese director Akira Kurosawa used to go to great lengths to distress wardrobe, props, and set dressing—even having crew members wear some of the clothing for months before production—in order to ensure the world of the film appeared lived in. The world of The Majestic is glossy and perfect, the '50s of Leave It to Beaver, yet the film has the audacity to attempt a serious moral statement about the real world we all inhabit…ah, but I was supposed to be keeping things positive here…
Again, if Darabont was just a hack, this flick's shortcomings would be easier to swallow or chuckle over.
If you're thinking to yourself, "This guy's nuts! This movie sounds great!," I have one additional caveat: considering the high profile of the film's star and the fact that Warner has put out a DVD with a beautiful transfer but scant extras, The Majestic looks ripe for a double-dip to me. I've heard no rumors and have no inside information regarding a future special edition; I'm speaking only from the gut here. It's just something to consider before making a purchase.
Seeing as Mr. Darabont's done fine work in the past, I'm going overlook The Majestic. Let's pretend it never happened, and hope he does a killer job on the Indy script.
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