In The Majestic, the indisputably gifted Jim Carrey shows the side of him that just wants to be loved - the Riddler on Ritalin, the Mask unmasked. And it turns out to be stultifying.
In the latest sentimental pile-driver from director Frank Darabont (The Green Mile), Carrey plays Peter Appleton, a Hollywood screenwriter fired from his studio in 1951 after he is accused of being a Communist. He gets in his car, drives it off a bridge to avoid a furry creature, crashes, and washes up near a small Northern California town that accepts him as a long-lost local hero.
Since the accident has erased his memory, Appleton eases into the identity of his look-alike: Luke Trimble, an all-around neighborhood good guy presumed to have been one of the many young men from sleepy little Lawson who died in World War II.
Appleton/Trimble is a role tailor-made for Carrey in all the wrong ways. In other words, it's a strait-jacket. From the moment he appeared in the short-lived 1984 sitcom The Duck Factory (which some of us followed just to watch him), what's been most magnetic about Carrey is the contrast between his conventional good looks and the heebie-jeebies raging or rippling right beneath their surface.
In The Majestic, there is no comic contrast - and no dramatic one either. His performance makes us appreciate the leading-man he's standing in for - Jimmy Stewart. In It's a Wonderful Life, Stewart runs an emotional marathon from hope to depression to elation. In The Majestic, Carrey just runs in place, whether he's finding a full new life, losing it, or regaining it. Whether as Appleton or Trimble, Carrey is a likable blank. No wonder nearly everyone finds it easy to project their fantasies upon him.
I wish director Darabont and writer Michael Sloane hadn't. In love with their own fantasy of virtue and innocence, they luxuriate in a Saturday Evening Post vision of an old-time communal America - a wholesome, open-minded place where everyone eats at a diner and dances at an open-air swing band concert and goes out for two-bits' worth of entertainment at the local movie palace.
A gaudy bijou named the Majestic is the property of Pa Trimble (Martin Landau). If Appleton/Trimble's appearance gives the whole town a lift, the reopening of the Majestic is the crowning glory of the village comeback. The smidgen of suspense is whether we'll find out that Appleton and Trimble are indeed one and the same. But there's so little surprise or invention to the movie and so much sappiness, after a while, we dread the outcome.
Darabont keeps calling this "the Capra film I've always wanted to make." That's part of the problem. The values he salutes may derive from It's a Wonderful Life, but the plot seems to call for parody.
The setup is straight out of Preston Sturges' knockabout satire, Hail the Conquering Hero, which also is about a small town embracing a supposed homegrown war hero. Yet in The Majestic there's nothing satiric about it - here, the town's avidity to throw a nonstop lovefest for an ambiguous champion is the stuff of poignancy instead of farce.
For that matter, Capra's townspeople in Life were a lot more engaging and individual. Here they exist to cheer our hero on. They're like the joggers who followed Forrest Gump, except here they're also as simple as Forrest Gump. In perhaps the most egregious example of their thick-headedness, they revere their war dead - yet leave the monument to them gathering dust in a town hall basement until Appleton/Trimble comes along.
The Majestic is the kind of movie that supposedly celebrates mankind yet appears to have been fashioned by someone who's never shaken the hand of a human being.
The funniest moments feature the off-screen voices of Garry Marshall, Paul Mazursky, Sydney Pollack and Carl and Rob Reiner as studio executives intent on turning Appleton's socially conscious script about coal-mining, Ashes to Ashes, into a heroic dog story.
We're supposed to be appalled. But while watching The Majestic, many will wish they were seeing the picture with the dog.
Starring Jim Carrey
Directed by Frank Darabont
Released by Warner Bros.
Running time 150 minutes
Sun score *