The Majestic opens with a scene that has an off-screen studio boss taking what we are meant to believe is screenwriter Peter Appleton’s masterpiece and filling it full of derivative shlock including a faithful dog and a blow to the head that strikes the main character blind. The irony is that The Majestic is itself overflowing with shlock, squeezing everyone senior citizen in the movie for a teary eyed moment, harnessing the sheer power of nostalgia and patriotism to pave over a movie that suffers from a completely senseless plot. There isn’t a single moment in The Majestic that can’t be predicted beforehand from the upbeat musical montage as the whole town rebuilds the theater that transitions to a troubling discovery to the audience at the hearing laughing and applauding on cue when Jim Carrey’s character delivers a line as if they were the audience at a taping of I Love Lucy instead of at a congressional hearing.
The Majestic evokes Hollywood as a soulless environment run by executives and their flunkies who eagerly kowtow to the vicious Roy Cohn stand-in investigating Communist activities in Hollywood. Peter Appleton’s journey throughout the movie takes him away from Hollywood to the small California town of Lawton, a thick heaping slice of Americana just dripping with every good and positive value of the 50’s where he finds happiness in rebuilding and running a movie theater that shows Hollywood movies. If that formulation left you scratching your head, it’s because The Majestic is a movie that makes very little sense, packed to the seams with emotionalism, beautifully lit, artfully lensed and topped off with an Isham score rich in sentimentality, it’s a two hour and change evocation of Americana that runs on feeling and leaves reason somewhere on the road behind.
Hollywood screenwriter Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey) is riding high in his Mercedes coupe until the House Unamerican Activities Commission comes calling to investigate his signing on to a petition for a Communist front group in college. Peter Appleton in close succession gets drunk, drives off a bridge and then washes up on the shore with amnesia and no idea who he is. Jim Carrey is about the only top ranked actor besides Tom Hanks who can successfully evoke the classic American leading man and in The Majestic as in The Truman Show he is at the top of his game. Martin Landau as The Majestic’s proprietor who lost his son and mistakes Carrey for his prodigal war hero returned from the dead makes you wish Landau worked more often. The rest of the cast is rounded out by the usual reliable character actors like David Odgen Stiers and Bob Balaban, all of whom play warmly evocative townfolk that seem to have stepped right out of a tinted photograph.
But between Lawton and Hollywood, The Majestic becomes two movies instead of one, both are shlock but one is at least well intentioned shlock as Peter Appleton comes to love the town and plays a role in its revival and the other is a shamelessly self-involved tribute to Hollywood that has Peter Appleton waving a dead man’s Medal of Honor at the Senate committee and proclaiming that a dead man he never met would be ashamed of them while the audience applauds on cue. Michael Sloane and director Frank Darabont would no doubt like to think it is one movie but in truth there is no connection except a tenuous attempt to somehow use the citizens of Lawton to demonstrate the true American spirit that holds by the Constitution and keeps a black veteran living in a grungy basement with his trumpet doing odd jobs for the townsfolk.
In the end The Majestic collapses under the weight of its own self-righteousness, the movie bears up and even shines through teary eyed scene after teary eyed scene as a blank Jim Carrey gains personality and life and becomes caught up in the lives of the townfolk of Lawton but it cannot endure his posturing performance or the movie’s clumsy attempt to transform his tirade against the Committee into a vindication that somehow magically leaves him free to continue working on his movie. This is a long way from real life and an insult to the people who did take a risk by repudiating the Committee and paid for it with their careers. Yet in the end The Majestic is as mired in shlock as Appleton’s own transformed script is and so wedded to the formula that it must have Peter Appleton freely choose Lawton over a successful Hollywood career rather than deviate from the emotional arc by a single iota.
It is of course no surprise that the same town which had turned its back on him only a day ago gathers en masse to cheer his return, even though he has no actual connection to them. Nor can it be a surprise that the girl who rejected him a day ago arrives to kiss him. Shlock after all has its own formula, what it lacks is originality. The Majestic is on the surface a beautiful film brimming with emotion yet devoid of anything deeper than surface sentimentality. Despite a talented director and a talented cast, The Majestic is the shadow of all the easy plots, the cheat endings and the buckets of tears on the silver screen of its own namesake theater.