Life was good!
Here’s a bad idea: schmaltzy Jim Carrey. As everyone knows—because he’s been so vocal about it—that Carrey is looking to expand his domain, to be understood as more than “just” a gifted and wildly popular comedian (who makes $20 million a pop) and to be respected as a dramatic actor. His efforts to make this happen are well-known: The Truman Show more or less successfully combined his comic odd-ballity with a poignant storyline so that everyone was pleased (except the Oscar voters, a slight that Carrey made sure everyone knew made him unhappy), and Man In The Moon was a more outrageous and quite admirable gamble, Jim Carrey channeling Andy Kaufman. Distressingly, whatever edge he had working in Milos Forman’s film is nowhere in sight in Frank Darabont’s The Majestic.
Set in the early 1950s (The African Queen is in theaters, so we’re talking, say, 1951), The Majestic is a feel-good flick in the old-fashioned sense. Taking up a terrible historical topic—the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings, blacklisting, and general red-scaring—the film finds a wholly wonderful silver lining in it, namely, that the witch-hunters are wrong-headed individuals who are, in the end, outnumbered by those noble souls who understand in their hearts why young men go to war. The reason, of course, is defensive only—to stand up for freedom, democracy, and the Constitution, not to mention the right to make all kinds of money on any kind of product. Yay team.
Such nostalgic self-love is, of course, popular at the moment, and The Majestic milks the sentiment in the most reductive way: movies are good and witch-hunts are bad. Ignoring systemic problems (say, how U.S. legal and political structures continue to allow for misuses resembling the HUAC hearings or Japanese internment camps), the film focuses instead on individuals, for they can be blamed, punished, and most importantly, fixed.
As The Majestic opens, Peter Appleton (Carrey) makes his living writing B pictures with titles like Sand Pirates of the Sahara (the little bit we see of this picture, starring the irrepressible Bruce Campbell as a dashing tomb raider, looks like a lot of fun). Peter’s not thrilled with the unreasonable changes he’s asked to make in his “serious” scripts, indicated in the smart opening scene, where the camera never moves from his consternated face while studio-types’ voices decide how to “fix” his coal mining drama with a dog who saves the day. “That’s amazing,” he tells the unseen suits, grinning hollowly. So now you know: he knows the dog is a bad idea, but is willing to play along, until he learns that moral lesson that’s just down the road. In other words, Peter has a trajectory as corny as any with a day-saving dog.
In case you miss this point in the first scene, the movie nails down Peter’s shallowness with your first glimpse of is foofy actor girlfriend, Sandy (Amanda Detmer). The deck is stacked high against her: her painfully unironic Marilyn-clone wig announces that Peter will soon be finding true love elsewhere. For the moment, though, he’s desperate to feel blissfully ignorant: “We were young,” he rhapsodizes in voice-over, “We were in love and we were working in the pictures. Life was good!”
This good life collapses when Peter is called for HUAC questioning, because he once attended a Communist meeting in college, but only in an effort, he protests, “to impress a girl.” Suddenly blacklisted and dumped by Sandy, he gets drunk, drives his car off a bridge, hits his head, and wakes up washed ashore in the entirely retro town of Lawson, CA, so quaint that it has a single main street, single diner, and single movie theater. Folks here are trusting, generous, and grieving the loss of 62 sons in WWII; in short, they’re inclined to hope that Peter is actually the fellow he looks like, Luke Trimble, MIA in Europe 9 and a half years before. His headstone and glass case full of medals occupy a special place in the town’s war memorial graveyard, and even though Peter-now-called-Luke has not a trace of memory about any of this, he’s willing to play along.
This situation is exceptionally trippy, to be sure. But in the movies, you know, life is perpetually good, even when it looks bad for a minute. Since Peter has conveniently lost his memory during the car wreck, he’s really only being nice. And how can he resist? Luke’s own father, Harry (Martin Landau), makes the initial ID, and Luke’s girlfriend Adele (Laurie Holden) rewards him with a walk along the beach and a few choice secrets about their past relationship (for instance, the cure for her hiccups is a sweet kiss from her dashing beau). It so happens that Harry owns the local movie theater, the Majestic, which has gone to seed since the war.
Peter-now-called-Luke’s “return” inspires everyone—including the Doc (David Ogden Stiers), mayor (Jeffrey DeMunn), sheriff (Brent Briscoe), pawnshop owner Stan (James Whitmore), aging candy-girl Irene (Susan Willis), and aging usher Emmett (Gerry Black)—to pitch in to restore the theater to its old glory, to return the town itself to its former contentment. They even agree to haul a war memorial out of the Town Hall basement, a memorial that has previously been a painful reminder of loss, rather than courageous sacrifice. Spinning such deaths so they might build “national character” rather than devastate survivor populations is certainly the federal government’s function—how else would it convince anyone to go to war, for heaven’s sake?—but The Majestic‘s representation of this process is rudimentary, at best.
First, however you read the grandiose, mostly low-angle shots showing the statue’s resurrection, it is clearly the reopening the theater that marks the town’s emotional rehabilitation: the whole town turns out for the first night, and the ticket-buying is a hugely meaningful ritual: you can pay cash money to save your soul. This combines elements of other famous movies about movies, ranging from back-patting exercises (Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, Darabont’s own The Green Mile) to exegeses on the pathological industry (Billy Wilder’s
Sunset Boulevard, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive). The Majestic simultaneously chides the bad business practices (Peter and the craven studio guys only want to make money) and celebrates the good product (Peter-now-called-Luke saves Lawson’s spirit with his passion for the movies; and note that Peter’s own bill-filler, Sand Pirates of the Sahara, thrills the moviegoers in Lawson).
Second, the stock characters here recall a fabricated history. No doubt, these are precisely the stock characters the film means to invoke, but they only revisit the same limited, whitewashed worldview that even the most wonderful Frank Capra movies presented. At this point in time, especially at this point in time, such nostalgia is more maddening (and potentially dangerous) than it is soul-nourishing, especially if you’re not of a Caucasian persuasion. The Majestic‘s investment in the theater as a site of rejuvenated faith certainly suits the current U.S. mood: whatever would the nation do if there weren’t bunches of movies, of most every ilk, available to consume during the holiday season? Peter-now-called-Luke is a second coming in more ways than one. Yet, it’s a vision of a fabricated, cleaned-up past that leaves out a few too many individuals.
This isn’t to say that the film doesnt include a couple of stock characters who nonetheless stand out from the crowd. Emmett, for example, is the only black character in sight; but this status apparently (and predictably) grants him a special authenticating authority (Emmett is a slighter version of what Spike Lee calls the “Magical Negro,” a character more prominent in The Green Mile; Michael Clarke Duncan’s John Coffey goes so far as to sacrifice himself to the ultrawhite angels Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers). Indeed, when the wise, humble, and completely altruistic Emmett approves Peter-now-called-Luke, well, Peter himself starts to believe he must be the guy.
And so, no matter who Peter-now-called-Luke might really be, he’s serving a purpose here—he has become Lawson’s own son, even if he’s not. It’s worth noting that the only townsperson who openly questions his identity is a “fellow” vet named Bob (Karl Bury); it’s hardly coincidence that Bob has a hook for one hand, and so recalls the Oscar-winning performance by real WWII veteran Harold Russell in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. While Bob is understandably grumpy about his own circumstances, Peter-now-called-Luke offers smug advice, that Bob stop being so gloomy and start romancing diner-owner Mabel (Catherine Dent), who is in turn, obviously in love with Bob. That Peter-now-called-Luke actually has no war experience is obviously irrelevant to his “understanding” of Bob’s rage. Peter, after all, is a screenwriter: imagining himself into someone else’s shoes is what he does best. Eventually, he has to imagine himself into a whole other sensibility, brave and true, like Luke.
The mechanism for this transformation is television, and this may be the film’s most incisive point of all, that movies in 1951 were on their way out as a way to shape national consciousness and belief, and tv was well on its way in. Surely, the HUAC hearings are among the most “embarrassing” of U.S. historical moments, and The Majestic shows that at least some of this mess took place on television, a technology that would forever alter the public sphere. But as you watch shots of stricken viewers intercut with little black-and-white images of those shameful proceedings, you might wonder about all the other, less noble souls who were also watching, and cheering on the Congressmen, or maybe the folks who were too poor to own tvs, or those whose lives such witch-hunting didn’t affect because they were already so horrifically abused for being black or Japanese.
And so, at its most reductive, The Majestic is about the enduring U.S. mythology that all viewers—of tv and movies—have the same response to what they see. The Majestic lets you believe that the system works, and that when someone earnestly resists a body like HUAC, redemption ensues. More complexly, the film also suggests that what you believe in (systems included, I suppose) needn’t be true, so long as it sustains you during times of duress. This is a timely notion, but it’s a potentially troubling one, if those beliefs become self-righteous and self-justifying, to the point of ignorance.