For a second time Jim Carrey does a serious film that has to do with an alternate life. In "The Truman Show" it was staged reality for the benefit of a TV audience; here in "The Majestic" it's amnesia leading him to a false identity. In "The Truman Show" it was nasty exploitation behind the deception; here it's an escape from false accusations.
Actually, he's Peter Appleton, a successful screenwriter in 1951 who is all too familiar with having his story ideas subverted by talentless studio heads when he's fingered by an old girlfriend as having attended a meeting of communists some year before. The fact that he attended it only because he wanted to get laid holds no currency with his accusers. His agent Leo Kubelsky (Allen Garfield) not very helpfully would have him "admit" and then renounce his communist affiliation simply to get off the hook.
Having difficulty with that concept, he takes a ride to sort it out and, in a rainy sequence worthy of "Twilight Zone", swerves off a bridge and into a rushing river where he knocks his head against a piling. Barely conscious, he's carried by the current into the ocean and onto a beach where he's discovered and helped ashore by Stan Keller (James Whitmore), the first townsperson of Lawson to see him. Keller, taking a good look at his bedraggled survivor, remarks that he thinks he's seen him before. But Appleton can't even tell him his name. His memory is gone.
In turn all the townsfolk think they've seen Appleton before until Harry Trimble (Martin Landau), the man who ran the local movie theatre, "The Majestic" until it folded in bad times, tells everyone why they all think he's so familiar. He identifies Appleton as his missing son, Luke.
The small town of Lawson has lost 62 sons to the war -- so many, so disproportionate to the population, that it's received a memorial from congress. Almost to a man, woman and dog they are overeager and overjoyed to welcome Luke back into their fold. After some wrestling with what destiny has befallen him, Appleton agrees to fill the role until his memory returns. Taking his place in the idyllic community and newfound family, he helps restore "The Majestic" theatre, the symbol for the town's emergence from despondency.
Adele Stanton (Laurie Holden), the town doctor's daughter, returns from law school. She is smart, milky sweet and still in love with Luke, though she needs a while to decide that Appleton is who everyone else thinks he is.
For the time being, he has escaped the politically poisonous threat of the outside world but that's not to last. Eventually he's found, served papers and appears before the committee to defend the accusations against him and suddenly we're in Frank Capra's "Mr Smith Goes to Washington", 1950's style. Despite the parallels to another era, this script does make the point that the days of blacklisting were not so much about whether someone was a communist or not but rather how you played the political game with the over-righteous representatives of the House who saw this as their major opportunity to prove their patriotic superiority. Instead of McCarthy as the chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, we get Johnston T. Doyle (Hal Holbrook) with Elvin Clyde (Bob Balaban) as his chief attack dog.
The trouble with it all is that it's so overdone. The creators of this movie will no doubt be thinking that they've done something very important because of the evocation of the hearings, but the style of storytelling is adopted from the worst films of the period in which characters were stereotypes and life simplified and idealized. While Appleton/Trimble has some dimensionality to him, most of the other characters, especially the townsfolk, are cardboard cutouts to represent the necessary cliches.
To make it worse, this film goes out of its way to be sweet and sentimental. But, what fulfilled an audience's fantasies in 1939 doesn't play too well in a 2001 film. Of course, it's the favored fare for some filmgoers and always will be the kind of presentation to satisfy their need for entertainment of the safe variety. This one protects them from anything that might be challenging.
Among its virtues is that it serves as a reminder of the brutalities and upheavals of a time in the nation's history when values went seriously awry. Another virtue is its impeccable visual recreation of the period, as evoked by English cinematographer David Tattersall ("Star Wars: II", "The Green Mile"). As oversentimental as the subject matter and style may be, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the lush and colorful production. From design to wardrobe, it's pro.
Which makes it all the worse is that director Frank Darabant ("The Green Mile", "The Shawshank Redemption"), employs so much overstatement and superficial drivel. And, why is it that when these are the weaknesses of a film it goes on for 2 1/2 hours or more? We should be thankful, of course, that it isn't as excessive as "The Green Mile"'s 188 minutes.
Estimated cost: $72,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $30,000,000.