Don’t Say I Didn’t Warn You
In reading this review, there’s every possibility that you might come across some typographical errors, and for that I am sorry. I can’t help it, though. I can barely type because I just got back from seeing The Majestic and ny hands are shaking out of pure rage and frustration. (See! See!) But I can’t stop typing; if I don’t say just how phony and artificial and manipulative the whole sorry mess is, I’ll burst out screaming. And if that means there are a few typos here and there, so be it.
Just about every movie has a target audience, which is a sorry phrase but it gets the point across; I walked into the theater with a great big bulls-eye on my chest. It starts with the title; “The Majestic” refers to an old movie-house in a sleepy California town. I love old movie theaters; the old Paramount Theater in Austin is one of the joys of my life, and I love how they run old movies there in the summertime. It is one of my life’s ambitions to do what Jim Carrey does in the movie, to restore an old movie theater back to its original glory, show classic films, and charge reasonable prices for popcorn and candy. Also, the movie was directed by Frank Darabont, who did The Shawshank Redemption, which is one of those movies I can’t talk about intelligently because I love it so much. Finally, the unstated ambition of The Majestic was to bring back the glory days of Frank Capra, and there was no way in the world I could have resisted that.
And then, it turns out that the Carrey character is a Hollywood writer who drives a Mercedes convertible and is in love with a smart blonde and can play jazz piano. I just happen to love German cars and smart blondes (although I haven’t had much success with either) and would love to be either a screenwriter or a jazz pianist if I had the time and energy and ambition. In The Majestic, Jim Carrey’s character has the skills I want to have and lives a life I’d like to lead. And Carrey himself is acting in a movie that, by all rights, I should have loved.
But I didn’t love it.
I hated it with the white-hot flaming passion of ten thousand suns.
This is why.
The Majestic is whited sepulcher of a movie, filled with corruption and rot. And the more decorative that an empty vessel is the more useless and offensive it is. The Majestic, if you can separate out the words and actions and thoughts and philosophies, has some beautiful imagery. The best thing about The Majestic (and I use that word very advisedly) is its photography; the scenic coastal lighthouses and intricate movie marquees and somber cemeteries and sparkling small-town diners and vintage cars and trains look gorgeous and resplendent. But it’s not enough, and the effect is ruined by constant repetition. There are just too many slow-motion pans past The Majestic marquee and too many soulful shots of Main Street for anyone’s taste. The overall effect is like being beaten with a sack of antique doorknobs for two hours.
The plot is, if anything, less subtle than the cinematography. Carrey starts out the movie as a two-bit 1951 Hollywood screenwriter who is promptly blacklisted for alleged Communist leanings. He gets drunk, manages to drive that splendid Mercedes off a rickety bridge, bangs his head against a piling, and winds up with the damnedest case of cinematic amnesia you never saw. He is picked up by a local (national treasure James Whitmore), taken into town, and immediately mistaken for the long-lost Luke Trimble, MIA in Normandy since 1944. He gets a hero’s welcome, helps his supposed father (national treasure Martin Landau) rebuild the town’s movie theater, and kindles romantic sparks with Luke’s fiancÃ©.
All this is well and good; it’s not even that out of step with the Capra tradition, which specialized in putting its heroes in knotty, no-win situations. Again, though, The Majestic shamelessly piles on the schmaltz. Carrey’s not just a small fish in the big net cast by McCarthyism; he’s personally hunted down by the movie’s Roy Cohn surrogate, who considers him the leader of the Communist cell on the West Coast. Carrey’s doppelganger isn’t just a war hero but a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, and the town itself is nationally recognized for the number of its young men killed in the war. (The town itself is resplendently perfect in almost a Stepford Wives sense; the decrepit movie theater is the only building that even needs paint. All the cars are showroom-new. Not to mention that – even at the height of the Baby Boom – there don’t seem to be any small children in town.)
All of the above nonsense could be excused, even justified, if the rest of the movie was any good. But the phoniness and insincerity of The Majestic goes even deeper, the rot is more widespread. The first and most obvious culprit is Jim Carrey himself. Carrey delivers a horribly weak and spineless performance here, easily the worst acting he’s ever done. I made a joke the other day about Dylan McDermott in Texas Rangers; I said he wasn’t Jimmy Stewart, or even Patrick Stewart. Carrey isn’t even Stewart Smalley. His entire characterization is based on being nice and inoffensive and a bit confused, which is exactly the worst possible way to handle this sort of material. He doesn’t even flash any of his trademark energy; the only thing he does with any kind of style at all is work the ticket booth at the theater. (The only thing The Majestic is good for, maybe, is training modern-day ticket-takers in how to at least pretend to care about their jobs.)
It isn’t all Carrey’s fault, though. The Majestic makes Carrey’s character innocent and idealistic, but overlooks the reality of Capra heroes entirely. Part of their appeal is that they are flawed, but manage the strength of character to overcome their flaws. The Majestic doesn’t give Carrey any flaws or any character to speak of. This not only entirely misses the point; it makes his ultimate redemption insincere and phony. Carrey just isn’t the kind of actor who could overcome such mistakes. The only way The Majestic could have succeeded was to cast a better actor in the part, one with more of a built-in dark side. Tim Robbins would have been dead solid perfect in this role; he’s worked with Darabont before and can handle the innocent and idealistic side of things as well as the darker, cynical part of the Capra zeitgeist. And since Robbins is a Communist anyway, he would make that part of the movie that much more convincing.
To make matters worse, there really isn’t any place in The Majestic for cynics. Cynics play an important role in the Capra movie, but their voices are almost silenced here. (I say “almost” because of two marginally funny bookend scenes featuring the disembodied voices of Garry Marshall, Rob and Carl Reiner, and Sydney Pollack tearing Carrey’s script to bits.) There’s one bitter character in the town, but he comes around quickly enough. The Roy Cohn character is a threat, but he’s not properly cynical enough to counterbalance things; there isn’t enough darkness to cast a shadow on the Technicolor sunshine; not enough cigar smoke to blur the neon lights of the marquee. Without any credible forces of darkness – Claude Rains surrendering his honor in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the Presidential schemes of the tycoon in Meet John Doe, Mr. Potter skulking in his basement office in It’s A Wonderful Life — there’s nothing for the Capra hero to stand up against.
The worst thing about The Majestic is that there’s nothing to stand up for, either. The Majestic takes its principled stand not against evil or greed or corruption but against the House Un-American Activities Committee, of all things. Say what you want about Tailgunner Joe McCarthy, but he’s as dead as Julius Caesar. The Majestic‘s bold and principled stand against McCarthyism is as archaic as a crusade against yellow fever or a philippic against the unlimited coinage of silver at sixteen-to-one. (Any ACLU liberals out there who really think that Hollywood today faces a legitimate threat to its freedom of speech should really go rent Freddy Got Fingered before they go and open their pie-holes.)
The Capra movie is at its heart an exhortation, an encouragement to love your neighbor and fight for your country and count your blessings. The Majestic doesn’t exhort anyone to do anything other than go to more movies. It is not a testament to shared values but to Hollywood narcissism; it finds what strength it has not in the virtues of the common man but in its own shallow self-interest.
The indictment against Capra movies has always been that they are needlessly manipulative. Unfortunately, the willingness to manipulate the audience is the only thing that The Majestic really has in common with Capra. But The Majestic is just manipulating the audience for the hell of it, not because it believes in anything or wants the audience to feel a certain way or even to do anything other than spend more money in theaters. That’s not just manipulative, that’s evil and wrong, and more than anything else, that’s what makes The Majestic the most disappointing movie of the yaer. (Yes, that’s a typo, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.)