The Majestic
review by Gregory Avery, 28 December 2001

The only explanation for The Majestic must be that everyone was out of their minds while they were making it, or at least temporarily taken leave of their senses. This is a movie that zooms straight into cloud-cuckooland from the start and never comes back.

Pete (Jim Carrey), a Hollywood screenwriter in 1951, gets conked on the head, loses his memory, and wanders into the quaint California small town of Lawson, where he is immediately mistaken for Luke, one of the local boys who went off to fight in World War Two, was highly decorated, and then became missing-in-action. Luke's father (Martin Landau) is also the proprietor of the local movie theater, which has been closed down since after the war, and Pete helps get it spruced up and re-opened, thus reviving the town's dreams and spirit in the process. Everyone loves him (there is one dissenter, but, considering that he lost an arm during the war, you can understand why he'd be cranky) -- but then a fleet of F.B.I. cars, arriving with all the noise and thunder of Klaatu's flying saucer landing on the Washington Mall in The Day the Earth Stood Still, pulls into town. Seems Pete was about to be served with a subpoena by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had just come west to search for Reds under Hollywood's beds when Pete lost his memory.

The film's depiction of Lawson, an apparently typical small town in grass-roots America during the years after World War Two, is so bucolic that I almost expected it to be revealed as a hallucination Pete had been having while he was being hospitalized for a concussion. It has the too-perfect look of those small towns that characters sometimes wandered into on The Twilight Zone. People say things like, "Great guys should always win.. TV is dismissed as something that will never catch on because it lacks being a communal experience -- "Where are the other people? Where's the audience?" Pete's idyll in Lawson also seems like it's been made up almost entirely from recycled bits and pieces from other movies. The most obvious is Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), but Preston Sturges, who knew better, set up the conceit so that Eddie Bracken's character knows, going in, what he is doing -- he not only doesn't want to let the townspeople down by saying that he is actually someone else, but he also feels badly over having been excluded from war service to begin with.

Here, Pete is not just playing to the townspeople's illusions, he's supposed to be finding a life for himself in Lawson that he never had in Hollywood, although we're shown so little of what that life was like in Hollywood that we don't know what he was missing. (We do know that he was a minor screenwriter, with only one film to his credit, a cheesy flick entitled Sand-Pirates of the Sahara, which makes H.U.A.C.'s pursuit of him seem even more improbable.) On the other hand, since so little is shown of Pete's earlier existence, you begin to wonder if "Pete" was who Luke was, for the nine-plus years that he was missing in between the war and his return home to Lawson. (You have lots of time trying to get this movie to make sense in your head while your watching it -- it is played out, at length, for over two-and-a-half hours.)

Jim Carrey does show, during the scenes in Lawson, an ability to express sincerity and joy in a quiet, genuine manner that at times approaches gracefulness. (It's a very fine quality that will probably be used to good effect in another movie.) But he's supposed to be playing a lost man, here, and a sense of emptiness wells up in Carrey's chestnut-dark eyes, so much so that, when he later strikes his mighty blow against H.U.A.C., you don't know where it's coming from or what his character's drawing from within himself to perform it.

Everything winds up with Pete appearing before the H.U.A.C. Committee, in Washington, where, standing before members played by Hal Holbrook and a formidably icy Bob Balaban, he ends up -- giving them a lecture on the First Amendment, and even calling the committee members "bitter. Luke's girlfriend, Adele (Laurie Holden, who has a cascade of blonde hair and the smoky-eyed look of Lizabeth Scott), had exhorted Pete to remember what the boys from Lawson were fighting for over in Europe, and how they waged a war against the forces of Fascism. A lot of people who actually appeared before H.U.A.C. were long-standing anti-Fascists, and some of them indeed tried to remind the Committee about First Amendment protections which were guaranteed to U.S. citizens under law, but before they could speak their piece, the Committee, not wanting to listen to any of that, simply cited them for contempt of Congress (the Committee being a Congressional body) and threw them in the hoosegow. Some were given a second chance, and were brought out of jail in exchange for naming names; others, for personal or professional reasons, "cooperated" with H.U.A.C. before even running the risk of jail time. None of the H.U.A.C.'s investigations into Hollywood were televised, as "The Majestic" claims they were; the later Army-McCarthy hearings were, which was when defense lawyer Joseph N. Welch demolished Senator Joseph McCarthy -- who, with his list of "card-carrying Communists, helped get the whole "Red scare" thing started -- with only a few simple, eloquent words. Bertolt Brecht, one of the very first in Hollywood subpoenaed to testify, was the only one who managed to bamboozle his way past H.U.A.C., and he had already booked passage back to Germany directly after he was called to appear. Blacklisting in the entertainment industries continued well up until the 1960s, and it would not be until the 1970s that any serious reassessment of the Committee's destructiveness, and utter futility, of the H.U.A.C. investigations would be made. (No instance of Communist anti-government subversion or influence was ever discovered, but a lot of people were thrown out of work, some of them for good, and some even committed suicide because of it.).

All of these inconvenient historical facts make Pete's little hatchet blow against H.U.A.C. in The Majestic look even more dubious, because it never could have happened. Yet, the filmmakers have claimed that this picture is the first "real" depiction of the McCarthy era. Why have they invented this? Are the filmmakers THAT desperate for a feel-good movie, at any price? Are they making it for us, or for themselves?

There's been some bickering, recently, over the veracity of A Beautiful Mind, but the makers of that film set out to make a valid, and engrossing, depiction of mental illness, and on those terms the film succeeds admirably. Pearl Harbor pointedly left out such highly pertinent facts as the Japanese occupation of China, and ended on the chokingly awful line, "Before the Doolittle raid [on Tokyo], America knew nothing but defeat. After it, nothing but victory." That film was the product of hacks who were trying to pull one over on the audience; The Majestic is the work of ostensibly talented and sensible people who ended up making (to borrow a term from Peter Rainer) a "fully-realized dud, one where they followed through on their original vision to the very end, no matter how wonky that may actually be. It may be appropriate (coincidental? deliberate? unconscious?) that the last film run by the Majestic Theater is Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Directed by:
Frank Darabont

Starring:
Jim Carrey
Laurie Holden
Martin Landau
David Ogden Stiers
Jeffrey DeMunn
Gerry Black
James Whitmore

Written by:
Michael Sloane

Rated:
PG - Parental Guidance Suggested.
Some material may
 not be suitable for
children.

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