A major complaint in a minor subplot spoils The Majestic.
Set during the McCarthy era and portraying a blacklisted screenwriter, The Majestic walks a thin line between homage and exploitation. Apolitical moviegoers can probably ignore this complaint and still enjoy The Majestic. But for people like me, there’s no getting past it.
The Ol’ Amnesia Plot
Did You Notice?
Jim Carrey plays a young screenwriter, just rising from the B list to the A list. But with exquisitely bad timing, the studio tells him that he’s been named in McCarthy’s commie-hunt and that he’ll have to face Congress. Despondent, he drives up the coast into the night.
A storm and a wayward opossum conspire to drive him off the road, and he wakes with amnesia on a beach. A kind man takes him to town. A nice waitress feeds him for free. A good doctor looks at his cuts and bruises.
Harry Trimble (Martin Landau) sees the stranger in the street and immediately recognizes him as Luke, his son who was thought lost in the war. Harry rallies the townspeople — including the beautiful girl (Laurie Holden) who was once Luke’s sweetheart — to a big welcome-home celebration, taking our forgetful hero completely by surprise.
Harry owns the old “Majestic” movie theater, which is now dilapidated and unused. But Luke’s return inspires him to renovate and re-open.
Food For Thought or Empty Calories?
The movie really wants this theater to serve as a metaphor for rebirth, and it does everything it can, from adopting “The Majestic” as its title to seducing the audience with its sweet and nostalgic score.
A few interesting and thoughtful ideas are introduced. For example, when Luke does get his memory back, which life will he choose, the small-town life of his childhood or the life he’s lived these last 10 years?
But movie is too busy feeding the audience high fructose corn syrup to delve very deeply into these issues.
Point of Order
But the worst thing about The Majestic is its bracketing story, which features “Peter Appleton’s” (Luke’s) problem with the commie hunters.
For those who don’t know about the McCarthy era, let me first recommend a documentary made from televised proceedings in 1954 called “Point of Order.” Then let me summarize the ordeal, from the point of view of a screenwriter in 1947.
Dalton Trumbo is one of ten movie-makers called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, accused of subversion and of affiliating with communists. His refusal to testify (which should have been a constitutionally-guaranteed right) cost him a prison sentence and a spot on the blacklist.
These ten people lost their careers. Dalton Trumbo stands out among them because he managed to work his way back into a job after years of unemployment. He was only able to do this by being so determined that he wrote under pseudonyms and hired “fronts,” and by being so talented that one of his fronts accepted an Academy Award for writing Roman Holiday.
Remember the Hollywood Ten
The point is, McCarthy’s witch-hunt caused real damage to real people. Livelihoods were lost. Reputations were destroyed. Strong, smart, and noble people were caught in the net, in spite of their best efforts.
What The Majestic does is insult the likes of Dalton Trumbo. Luke (“Peter”), armed only with the love of a girl and the power of a heartwarming movie behind him, stands up to the Committee. He humiliates them on national TV, and steals a round of applause that belongs to the real hero of the late McCarthy years, Joseph Welch (who said to McCarthy “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”)
I’m sure Darabont and screenwriter Michael Sloane had the best intentions. But they managed to imply that if only the Hollywood Ten had the hearts and minds of this fictional character, their lives would not have been destroyed. If only they were as charming as Jim Carrey, the blacklists would have no power over them. That it’s really their own personal shortcomings that kept them from defeating Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn.
Without the blacklist sequence, The Majestic would have been better. But it still wouldn’t have been good. Darabaont just can’t lay off the schmaltz. He pours it on too thick. In a more magical, lightweight film, I might have been more willing to savor the sweet syrup. But in as real and serious a setting as The Majestic’s, it just makes me gag.