A potentially pleasant little fable bloated by a $72 million budget and palpable Best Picture ambitions, "The Majestic" tanked during the 2001 Hollywood season, earning only $28 million domestically and drawing no Oscar nominations. On Tuesday, June 18, it's being released on DVD ($26.98 list) and VHS ($22.98 list).
Apparently presuming that shared first names means shared talents, director Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption") tries to channel Frank Capra, while Jim Carrey plays Jimmie Stewart in a drama intended to remind us of the Capra-Stewart classics "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "It's a Wonderful Life."
Unfortunately, Carrey does not exactly possess Stewart's naturalness. Carrey's reactions are always slightly off, even here, where he tries to hide them by being almost inert. Memo to Academy voters: Please give Carrey the Oscar so he'll go back to being funny.
Similarly, Darabont's direction lacks Capra's basic virtues of energy and entertainment. Nor does he have a clue what themes Capra looked for in a script.
Michael Sloan's screenplay offers a greatest hits collection of Hollywood hokum, old and new, from amnesia to the Blacklist. Set in either 1951 or 1954 -- the script is contradictory -- Carrey is cast as a superficial, apolitical junior screenwriter, who learns an Important Lesson about Life.
The film starts out amusingly as a sort of Coen Bros.-lite satire on movie studios, in the manner of their "Barton Fink." The camera focuses on Carrey's passive, compliant, but slightly horrified face as off screen a handful of old studio executives -- voiced hilariously by directors like Carl and Rob Reiner -- make Hollywood hash of the plot for his next screenplay.
Then, sadly, the earnestness begins. Carrey is subpoenaed by a red-hunting Congressional panel because years before he had once attended a left-wing meeting to impress some University of California girl.
Fired by the studio, he aimlessly drives north, falls off a bridge, conks his head, loses his memory, and is mistakenly assumed by the salt-of-the-earth citizenry of little Lawson, Calif., to be their long lost war-hero.
Settling into his new role as Martin Landau's son, he brings hope back to the small town by refurbishing the Majestic movie theatre. After all, as the movie industry has been pointing out for the last couple of decades, that's what real life is all about: Movies!
Then, he gets his memory back, the FBI tracks him down, and he is ordered to fink on other Commies. Of course, he being a 1951 Hollywood screenwriter and this being a 2001 Hollywood movie, he doesn't know any communists. What could be sillier than the idea of a communist screenwriter?
So, inspired by the McCarthy-hating liberalism of small town America in the 1950s, he makes a "Mr. Smith"-style speech that shames the evil, presumably Republican, anti-communist politicians. The usual standing ovations ensue.
Capraesque? First, Capra didn't make movies about movies. That's a modern form of navel-gazing.
Second, Capra's sentimental endings are so moving because the rest of his pictures are so cynical. In "It's A Wonderful Life," Stewart finds small town life petty and confining. In fact, there seems to be some sort of Twilight Zoneish curse that keeps George Bailey from ever leaving Bedford Falls. What the angel shows him at the end is that if he had left to enjoy himself in the big city, his hometown would have been even more of a dump.
Third, Capra and Stewart were Republicans. Stewart even served America through the first 23 years of the Cold War in the Air Force Reserve, rising to the rank of general. Making a movie about how there weren't any communists to speak of among Hollywood screenwriters would have struck them as absurd. After all, their writer on "Mr. Smith," Sydney Buchman, was a card-carrying Communist at the time.
American culture is still paying the price of the Hollywood Red Hunts, and not just because they blacklisted so many leftists with a weakness for totalitarianism. The subsequent anti-anti-communist backlash in the 1960s then drove underground most of the entertainment world's Republicans.
In 1939, two Republicans and a Stalinist could make a political classic. Today, acceptable opinion in Hollywood runs basically from Eleanor Roosevelt Democrats like Barbara Streisand on the left all the way over to Harry Truman Democrats like Tom Hanks on the right.
Rated PG for language and mild thematic elements.
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