The Majestic

  • Title:  The Majestic
  • Director:  Frank Darabont
  • Date:  2001
  • Studio:  Warner Brothers Pictures
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Cast:  Jim Carrey, Martin Landau, David Ogden Stiers, Laurie Holden, James Whitmore, Bruce Campbell
  • Format:  Widescreen, Color
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“Right, no Blacklist, The Studio just doesn’t want to know you.  Not with this thing hanging over your head.” — Peter’s agent

“Once this place was like a palace…  that’s why we called it The Majestic.  Any man, woman, child could walk right in, here they’d be, here we’d be, ‘Yes, sir; Yes, Ma’am, Enjoy the show.’  And in they’d come, entering the palace, like in a dream, like in heaven.  Maybe you had problems and worries out there but once you entered those doors, they didn’t matter any more and do you know why?  Chaplin, that’s why, and Keaton, and Lloyd, Garbo, Gable, Lombard, Jimmy Stewart, Jimmy Cagney, Fred and Ginger!  They were gods, and they lived up there.  That was Olympus!”  — Harry

“The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, they’re all just piece of paper with signatures on them.  And you know what a piece of paper with a signature on it is?  A contract.  Something that can be re-negotiated at any time.  Just so happens the House Un-American Activities Committee is renegotiating the contract this time.” –Agent.

I never was much of a fan of Jim Carrey — because he was known for his very broad, over-the-top, wild comedies, and that kind of comedy just wasn’t my thing.  But The Majestic is a drama, not a comedy and it is brilliant.  I thought Martin Landau gave an Oscar-worthy performance in this film, and Carrey was equally brilliant.  His speech at the end of the film to the Committee is reminiscent of the clips I’ve seen of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  Carrey is truly brilliant in this film and makes you believe he is the character he’s playing – which is what acting is all about, really.

The film begins with just voices, people having a discussion, then we see Carrey in a medium close up. He looks bored, and slightly annoyed.  He’s sitting in on an executive meeting with about his latest film, “Ashes to Ashes”.  Carrey is Peter Appleton, a writer, trying to make his way into Hollywood Pictures. He’s had some success, having written a screen play for a B picture called, “Sand Pirates of the Sahara”, which has been produced and released.  He has a girl, a job with the studio, and he thinks of L.A. as “his town”.  He’s trying to break into a pictures with “Ashes to Ashes”, and is afraid to rock the boat when the studio executives propose all sorts of ludicrous changes.  But then it all comes crashing down, when he’s accused of being a communist by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Peter’s as non-political as they come, and simply doesn’t care about any sort of politics.  He’s totally bewildered by the entire accusation.  The studio drops him like a hot potato, shelving “Ashes to Ashes”, his girl dumps him, and the bottom’s dropped out of his world, so Peter goes to a bar and tells the bartender (and his stuffed monkey toy) all this, while getting drunk.  He leaves the bar, intending to drive up the coast, just to clear his head.

In short, Peter has an accident on the drive and wakes up on a beach.  He’s found by an old man and a dog, who help him up, and take him to the nearest town.  The accident has caused Peter to lose his memory, yet everyone in the town says he looks familiar.  After buying him a hot meal at the local diner, the local doctor, Doc Stanton, comes in (David Ogden Steirs) and takes him to his office to look after him.  He fixes up Peter’s head wound, and gives him a clean shirt to wear, since Peter’s is pretty much wrecked.

Harry Trimble (Martin Landau) meanwhile, had barely seen Peter in the diner, but he knows who he is — it’s his son, Luke, who went missing in the war (World War II).  Pretty soon, everyone has declared that it he is Luke, and treats him like a hero.  And, even though Peter has no memory of the town, it’s people, or of being Luke, he sort of rolls with it.  Not out of malice, or an intent to deceive anyone, but because it just seems easy, and comfortable, and he’s enjoying how everyone cares about him and treats him as a hero.  He meets the doctor’s daughter, Adelle, who was Luke’s high school sweetheart, and they begin to fall for each other.

Meanwhile, Harry’s taken Luke (Peter) in, showing him his apartment above the local movie theater.  The theater is closed now, and run down.  It had been the dream of Harry, his wife, and Luke, but with Luke going missing in the war, and the death of his wife shortly thereafter, Harry just didn’t have the heart to continue with the business and let the theater go into disrepair.

The town where Luke and company live is very small, but lost 62 boys in the war, 17 at Normandy alone. The return of Luke Trimble, bouys up the town, and most of people are very happy to have Luke back. Things seem to be going well for Peter, now Luke.  At the welcome home party for Luke, Doc Stanton points out to Harry, that if it is Luke — where was he for nine years?  He must have been injured, shipped home, cared for.  He could have a whole ‘nother life, and a family who loves him who are looking for him. Harry acknowledges the possibility, but he is so happy to have his son back, he really doesn’t care.

Harry then proposes to Luke that they clean-up, restore, and re-open The Majestic.  Luke is hesitant at first, especially after he sees the amount of work involved and the cost of supplies needed.  However, they go to the town council and ask the mayor for help.  Before long, half the town is helping Luke and his father, Harry, to clean and fix up the Majestic.  The montage of restoring the old theater is very well done.

They re-open and have a rousing success as everyone in town comes to see the weekly films.  Harry’s happy, and everyone is doing well.  Until, the film, “Sand Pirates of  the Sahara” is shown.  Peter watches the film from the side of the full theater, and starts reciting the lines, then it dawns on him — he realizes who he really is.  But before he can do anything, the film stops running.  Emmett, one of the small staff of The Majestic, and someone who’s like family to the Trimbles’, says something’s wrong.  They run upstairs to the projection booth, and find Harry  on the ground.  He’s had a heart attack.

The Doc Stanton is called, and he does what he can, but Harry is dying.  Luke/Peter says goodbye to Harry, and although tempted to tell him who he is, doesn’t.  At the funeral, the FBI (whom the film had cut to a couple of times), representatives of the House Un-American Activities Committee, show up and serves a subpoena on Peter Appleton (aka ‘Luke’).  The entire town turns against Peter, even Adelle, though later she changes her mind.

In the small town of  Lawson, where he’d been living, his agent convinces him to read a prepared statement and a list of  names to the committee.

“All you do is show up, read the statement, salute the flag and everybody goes home happy.”  — Agent
“And I won’t be a communist anymore?” — Peter
“That’s the idea.” — Agent
“Doesn’t matter that I never was one?” 

Peter is hesitant and unsure of  himself.

Peter speaks to Adelle, who tries to convince him that he shouldn’t just cave in and admit doing something he didn’t do to get his life in Hollywood back.  Peter admits he’s basically a coward, that he was at Fort Dix during the war and was happy to not go overseas because he didn’t want to die like the boys of Lawson, especially Luke.

On the train back to Hollywood, Peter opens a gift from Adelle.  It’s a red-leather hard-bound copy of the Constitution, inscribed to Adelle from Luke.  Tucked inside is a letter from Luke, which includes the line, “When bullies rise up, the rest of us have to beat them back again – whatever the cost.” (read by Matt Damon).  Peter gets to the committee hearing, and the room is filled with photographers.  The committee begins to question Peter, and his advisors complain that Peter was supposed to simply read the statement.  However, Peter stands up, and finally, stops reading the statement he had started to read. Instead, in a bold act of courage, he reads the First Amendment of the Constitution.  He talks about Luke, and his “Big America”, as opposed to the “small America”, of the Committee.

“That’s the First Amendment, Mr. Chairman, it’s everything we’re about — if only we’d live up to it.  It’s the most important part of the contract every citizen has with this country, even though these contracts, The Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, even though they are just pieces of paper with signatures on them they are the only contracts we have that are not subject to re-negotiation, not by you, Mr. Chairman, not by you, Mr. Clyde, not by anyone, ever!  Too many people have paid for this contract in blood.”  He holds up the copy of  the Constitution in his hand.

He also confronts the Committee with Luke’s medal of  honor.  Then he walks out, despite the Committee telling him he’s not dismissed.  The room erupts in applause.  He and his agent talk in a car, and Peter’s convinced he’s going to prison.  The agent tells him, it’s all about “naming names”.  Peter says he didn’t give the committee any names.  The agent mentions the girl Peter mentioned; they’d gone to some meeting in college, the “Bread Instead of Bullets club” — a club now retroactively declared communist. Peter is shocked, he certainly didn’t mean to get anyone else in trouble.  And he had no idea she was a television producer on CBS.  However the agent points out, she’s the one who gave the Committee Peter’s name.

Peter goes back to his old life, and the film cycles back to the beginning, and Peter sitting in the boring meeting.  When the off-camera voices ask him what he thinks — he ends up walking out.  He sends a letter to Adelle and heads back to Lawson.  When he gets there, the entire town, who had heard his impassioned speech on the radio, gives him a hero’s welcome.  That he marries Adelle and raises children with her, while running the Majestic, is a story told through photos on the piano (we’d seen the piano and photos before during the picture).

The film is magnificent — Peter finally deciding to stand up for something and sticking it to the HUAC is brilliantly played, and Jim Carrey’s performance in that scene is particularly good.  Though it’s his confrontation with Adelle, where he admits to being a coward by the standards of the time, that’s probably the best bit in a film that’s full of “good bits”.  This is also a brave film, considering it came out in 2001, when a bully called Bush and the Republican party were trampling all over the civil rights of everyday Americans — limiting free speech, freedom of religion and even the right to read what you want or listen to the music you want.  That Conservative attack continues (libraries are being shut, books taken out of school libraries or the school libraries closed completely, as well as public ones; there’s been an assault on public radio and TV, and anyone who’s not a Christian Fundamentalist like Bush is considered a second-class citizen, or not a citizen at all but someone who should be kicked out of  the country — or what do you think “America is a “christian” country means?).  Bush also made it a crime for anyone to publicly criticize him under the so-called Patriot Act, and made travel difficult, and foreign travel nearly impossible (especially Canada — prior to Bush only a birth certificate and driver’s license were required to travel there, and hundreds of Americans traveled across the border from Michigan to Ontario to work every day.  Bush’s stunt with requiring passport threw all those people out of work.)  The Constitution is sacrosanct — and that’s the point of  this film, but it’s groups like the House Un-American Activities Committee and Bush’s Republicans (also Palin, Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Buchanan, etc.) who are the ones breaking it, especially the First Amendment, while accusing middle-of-the-road Democrats of doing the same thing.  I hate to be political here, but when reviewing a political film one really has to be, so sorry.

This film is also directed beautifully!  When Adelle and Peter/Luke first meet they end up near the ocean, at sunset, and it is absolutely beautiful.  The two climb the (albeit small, but working) lighthouse to talk and have their first kiss.  It’s a gorgeous shot.  The shots of main street, which is about as small-town, 50s America as you can get are picture perfect.  Luke’s homecoming party, and the montage sequence of the town working together to restore The Majestic are particularly well-crafted.  Even the scene in front of the Committee, looks really good.  The Majestic is an over-looked gem, and I particularly recommend it.  And, if, like me, you had avoided Jim Carrey films because of his comic reputation, give this film a try. I just wish Carrey, as an actor, would do more dramas (I can only think of  four, three of which I’ve seen and two I own).

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating 5 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  The Maltese Falcon (1941)