The Majestic

The Majestic.Castle Rock Entertainment 2001.

Before watching the movie:

Eleven years ago sometimes seems like not very long. Sometimes it’s still odd to me to think that a movie that’s so well established wasn’t always there. I remember seeing the poster for The Majestic at a theater when it was running.

I never really gave much thought to the fact that this is set in the McCarthy-era 50s. I’m especially fond of the 50s, and this is one of the more interesting aspects of the decade.

The story seems to center around a theater, which is sure to please movie people, but in light of Hugo and The Artist cleaning up recently, I wonder if there are really that many more movies about movies or if it just seems like that because waxing nostalgic about farming, dentistry, or factory work doesn’t trip the self-gratification alert.

After watching the movie:

Peter Appleton is a screenwriter on the verge of hitting the big time. He’s sold at least one B-movie before, but for the first time he has a contract for an A-list big ticket film. Then the House Unamerican Activities Committee cracks down on suspected communists in Hollywood, and they discover that he attended meetings of a communist group almost a decade ago back in college. Even though he was there to impress a girl and had no idea what it was actually about, he’s blacklisted, and his A-list film is pulled. After drinking through his sorrows, Peter gets in a car accident, and wakes up with no memory. The small town he washes up near recognizes him as a native son thought died in the war named Luke Trimble. Welcoming their war hero, the town comes alive. With his son back, Luke’s father decides to reopen the family theater, The Majestic. Luke’s old girlfriend comes home from law school, and the two rekindle a love he doesn’t remember. Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, Appleton is still being investigated, his disappearance being taken as a sure sign of his guilt.

It seems a little much to say that this film is proving something about Jim Carrey’s acting chops. He’s done some pretty dramatic scenes in his comedies. Never with stakes as high as they get here, but still, drama doesn’t seem foreign for him. Maybe if one had only seen him as Ace Ventura before this, but I know he had other, less off-the-wall characters between Ace and this movie. He does have a high amount of energy which he keeps offscreen in this film. I wonder if he was especially madcap when the camera was off to make up for it.

This is a dauntingly long movie. These days if I’m going to be committed to one story for more than two hours, I expect musical numbers or orcs. The length was especially unwelcome considering I had a late start, but in the end, I can’t point to anything and say it was unnecessary. Maybe a few subplots could have been cut, but I’m glad they weren’t. Maybe some moments lingered longer than they could have, but the point is nostalgia and classical romance.

If the film has something to say about films, I wasn’t paying enough attention to pick up on it. The screenwriter turned theater manager could have been an accountant turned restauranteur and I’m not sure it would have affected the plot much. What it does have to say, very forcefully, is that McCarthyist witch hunts are wrong. It’s a thesis with as much risk as “the Holocaust was bad” or “slavery was evil”. In the end, Appleton gives a far-reaching speech to the HUAC about the First Amendment and American ideals. In the moment, it seems like he’s single-handedly ended the witch hunt, but as soon as he leaves the courthouse, nothing has really changed, and I didn’t expect it to have. I would have preferred that he spoke his own case with such boldness and conviction, something along the lines of “I’ve been asked to read this recanting statement, but I cannot, because I am under oath to tell the truth”, that the committee was convinced to let him go and also shaken up a bit in their views, but instead he’s a hero without a shadow. At least he got his life back on his own terms.

Watch this movie: as a love letter to cinema buried under an identity crisis and safe politics.

Don’t watch this movie: to see Carrey’s butt address Congress.

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