[Screen It]

(2001) (Jim Carrey, Martin Landau) (PG)

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Drama: A blacklisted screenwriter washes up on the shores of a small town with amnesia and buoys the residents' spirits, as they believe him to be one of their own sons, lost for nearly a decade after WWII.
It's 1951 and Pete Appleton (JIM CARREY) is a Hollywood screenwriter whose script for "Sand Pirates of the Sahara" has just been turned into a movie starring his girlfriend, Sandra Sinclair (AMANDA DETMER). Pete's joy, however, quickly evaporates when he's accused of being a communist due to a club he belonged to years ago while in college.

Before he has a chance to defend himself, Sandra dumps him, his second feature is pulled from production, and he finds himself somewhat drunkenly driving up the coast in reaction to the turn of events. Things get worse when he drives off a bridge, lands in a river and is knocked unconscious.

Pete ends up washing up on the shores just outside the small town of Lawson, California where he's discovered by Stan Keller (JAMES WHITMORE), an elderly resident who takes him to see Doc Stanton (DAVID OGDEN STIERS) who diagnoses the young man as having amnesia.

After various people state that he looks quite familiar, it's Harry Trimble (MARTIN LANDAU), the owner of the now dark Majestic movie theater, who thinks he's identified the mystery man as his long lost son Luke who was listed missing in action during WWII nearly a decade ago.

In his confused condition, Pete can neither confirm nor deny that claim, but most everyone in town accepts that he's Luke. That is, except for Bob Leffert (KARL BURY), a WWII vet who went off to war with Luke and is suspicious of Pete, and Adele Stanton (LAURIE HOLDEN), the doc's aspiring lawyer daughter who was previously romantically involved with Luke.

Nevertheless, Pete's presence as Luke soon buoys the small town's spirits due to them losing so many boys in the war. Accordingly, Harry decides to reopen The Majestic. With Pete's help, as well as that of head usher Emmett Smith (GERRY BLACK) and Irene Terwilliger (SUSAN WILLIS), the candy counter lady, the theater starts showing movies again, much to the delight of Mayor Ernie Cole (JEFFERY DeMUNN) and Sheriff Cecil Coleman (BRENT BRISCOE).

Yet, as everyone tries to get Pete to remember his past, including Adele who starts to have feelings for him again, a menace looms in the distant background. Suspicious of Pete's sudden disappearance, Congressman Doyle (HAL HOLBROOK) and Majority Counsel Elvin Clyde (BOB BALABAN) want him found so that can testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his past involvement with communism. From that point on, Pete tries to remember who he really is and what he stands for as the congressional pressure soon threatens the idyllic life in which he's now suddenly found himself living.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Although I doubt it's a rule written in stone anywhere in Hollywood, it seems that every year quotas have to be met as far as releasing films of certain genres or categories. The summer, of course, gets the big blockbusters, while December has its share of high profile, Oscar contenders. The rest of the year has comedies - straight, romantic and gross out - along with dramas, sci-fi flicks, horror pictures, kids films and the like.

Another variety is the "feel good" picture that, for any number of reasons, succeeds at, or at least attempts to raise viewers' spirits. "The Majestic" is one such film and it arrives with a great deal of interest, anticipation and high expectations. That's because it's helmed by Frank Darabont, who, as a director, has had a perfect batting average so far with the terrific "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile," both of which earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay (by Darabont).

One can't continue making prison movies based on Stephen King stories forever, however, and a remake of "Jailhouse Rock" probably didn't seem the right choice for film number three. Thus, Darabont has moved on to another genre, the optimistic, feel good movie popularized in years past by the likes of Frank Capra in films such as "It Happened One Night" and "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town."

Obviously shooting for that style, the director has delivered a film that will probably play well in this new, post 9/11, nostalgia friendly movie environment. That's not to say that it's without its faults, however, and those looking for the brilliance found in the director's previous works - including yours truly - are apt to be a bit disappointed, or maybe even more so.

Elements that helped make those other films so good - the impressive cast, loving attention to detail and atmosphere, the swelling score and the period setting - are all present here. Yet, where they felt unforced and not terribly manipulative in those films - a point some cynics will obviously dispute - they feel somewhat out of kilter here. The score by composer Mark Isham ("Life As a House," "Don't Say A Word"), for instance, while lovely to hear, feels too manipulative in driving home the film's emotional moments rather than simply complementing them.

The biggest drawback may be the story itself, or at least certain large elements of it. Perhaps Darabont should have hired King to pen the story as it's obvious that screenwriter Michael Sloane ("Hollywood Boulevard II") isn't quite up there with the famous novelist for perfectly nailing down the details and essence of yesteryear.

What's offered here is more like a re-creation of various movies from the past rather than the real thing, and beyond that artificiality, there are other problems. Beyond too much foreshadowing and telegraphing of what will happen - if anything, the film turns out to be far too predictable, something I was hoping wasn't going to be that way - the film's structure and various elements feel flawed.

For starters, I would have jettisoned the entire McCarthy era witch-hunt material. While I realize that's a major point the filmmakers wanted to explore, it does little for the film other than disrupt what could and should have been a sweet and small-scale story.

It also allows for the predictable third act developments where the mean outside world comes crashing into the idyllic one like the proverbial bull in the china shop. Finally, it provides for one of those grandstanding, "I'm going to stand up for what's right" speeches that unfortunately feels more contrived than stirring or uplifting. In fact, that moment and the film's otherwise sugary sweet tone might induce the gag reflex in some viewers, as both lay on the sentimental, old-fashioned shtick a bit thick at times.

Without the commie angle - which could have worked in another style film had we actually thought that the protagonist might be one - the film could have started with the character washing up on the shores of the small town. By doing so, we never would have known if he was or wasn't the missing son and war hero - at least not until the end and maybe not even then if the filmmakers wanted to be gutsy - and thus would have been that much more interested in him and engaged in the story and how things would eventually turn out.

As it stands, we know who he is thanks to the prologue of sorts that starts the movie, and few will be surprised - due to the far too obvious setup - that he'll buoy the town's spirits only to possibly dash them by further telegraphed elements.

Besides, it doesn't take a detective to realize that while the character might resemble the missing young man with nine plus years of changes, he certainly wouldn't sound like him (unless he was 14 when he went off to war). Unfortunately, the filmmakers overlooked an easy solution to the problem - a throat injury of some sort from the accident or subsequent intake of too much salt water, etc. - that would have explained the vocal difference. That also could have allowed him to be mute for a while, a nice touch that would have complemented the amnesia bit.

Another potential problem for some viewers will be the casting of Jim Carrey ("Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "The Truman Show") as the perplexed protagonist. Wile he thankfully avoids any of his typical Carrey-isms or mugging, the actor never really seems completely comfortable in the role. Perhaps that stems from him trying to play up the confused bit, but the result for me was something of a distraction, which made me feel bad since he's obviously trying so hard to be accepted as a serious actor.

The rest of the cast - aside from Hal Holbrook ("Men of Honor," "The Bachelor") and Bob Balaban ("Gosford Park," "Best in Show") playing overeager and far too malevolent HUAC members - mostly shines, however, and that's especially true for Laurie Holden ("Past Perfect," various TV shows) as the protagonist's past and then potential future girlfriend.

Martin Landau ("EdTV," "Ed Wood") is enjoyable as his now joyous father, Gerry Black ("Tin Men," "National Lampoon's Vacation") is good as the theater's head usher, and Karl Bury (making his feature film debut) is solid as the one man in town who isn't happy to see the return of the lost son.

While it's not a horrible misfire by any means, has some nice individual moments, and could play quite well to viewers looking for an old-fashioned, feel good movie, the film is not without its faults, including the fact that at around two and a half hours, it's too long for this sort of movie and may be too cheesy for some viewers. The result is a decent picture that you really want to like, but that unfortunately doesn't come close to matching the director's previous efforts. "The Majestic" thus rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 14, 2001 / Posted December 21, 2001

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