THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Sometimes good movies benefit even more from coincidental timing. For example, when 1978's The China Syndrome was being made, no one thought a nuclear power reactor could ever really melt down. Then the film was released right around the time of Three Mile Island and suddenly the hard-to-believe became a reality. A less extreme example is The Majestic, a new film from director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile). No matter how you cut it, this is an important movie dealing with all-American issues. But having seen it in the wake of our country's recent spiritual rebirth, I couldn't help feeling extra moved by the story. This is - quite simply - the right movie at the right time.

The Majestic opens with a remarkable unbroken shot that lasts several minutes. Hollywood screenwriter Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey) sits in a story meeting about his latest script. As the unseen studio chiefs rip apart his work, we watch Peter's facial expressions contort in agony and, ultimately, resignation. He just wants to get a picture made, one way or the other. It looks like that is about to happen until Peter learns he has been named in the Hollywood blacklist scandal. His only previous involvement with the Communist party came when, as a college student, he attended a rally to impress a girl. Nevertheless, he is expected to appear in front of a congressional committee. The studio cancels his contract as a result.

Laurie Holden and Jim Carrey fall in love by the theater marquee in The Majestic
Drunk and depressed, Peter sets off on a road trip to nowhere. His car goes off a bridge, sending him plunging into a river, and when he awakens he has been washed ashore in a small California town. It doesn't take long for one of the townspeople, Stan Keller (James Whitmore), to find him. A head injury sustained during the accident has left Peter without memory of his identity, but the owner of the local movie theater, Harry Trimble (Martin Landau), believes he knows exactly who the mystery man is: Harry thinks Peter is his son Luke, a war hero who went missing in action almost a decade before. The two do share a physical resemblance, and as soon as Harry makes the suggestion, others in the town also become convinced that it is Luke. One person who is especially convinced is Luke's former girlfriend Adele (Laurie Holden). She is quick to reestablish the relationship she once lost. As word spreads that Luke has returned at long last, Peter struggles to regain his memories (or, more precisely, Luke's). He becomes a town hero and is inspired to reopen Harry's decrepit movie theater, the Majestic.

Eventually, of course, Peter regains his memory just as the House Un-American Activities Committee finds him and calls him to testify. He is initially reluctant, a fear that subsides when the Committee offers him a deal to name names. The townspeoples' memories of Luke - this soldier unbeknownst to him personally - rattle around in his head, changing Peter's perception of what it means to be an American. His ultimate course of action is greatly influenced by what he has learned.

The Majestic is patterned very closely after the films of Frank Capra. It is about an idyllic small town where very large issues are played out. It is about a man learning to stand up for his beliefs, regardless of consequence. It even has the hero giving the kind of long, passionate speech that would never be tolerated in real life but which makes for great cinema. The story calls to mind a former innocence America once had that has regrettably been lost, although it is also quick to remind us that personal integrity can be a cure for many of our nation's ailments. I liked the Capraesque elements and the way the movie embraces an old-fashioned sentimentality.

Why did I like that? Because movie is not trite; it is really about something. While Peter is not Luke, the illusion that he is brings comfort to a town that has been grieving its lost sons for years. The reopening of the movie theater brings people together to share a dream. For a time, these people are able to feel hope: hope that a common pain can heal, hope that the dark days will become light again. In many ways, the Capraesque elements are intended to run contrary to the deeper issues of the plot. Darabont and writer Michael Sloane are interested in more than just showing they can mimic a cinematic legend; they use the formula as a means of delving deeply into their themes.

I don't know whose idea it was to cast Jim Carrey in the kind of role Jimmy Stewart would have played, but I can tell you that it was an inspired choice. Although best known for his manic energy, Carrey proves himself an actor of genuine versatility in this role. His performance is subtle and effective, a masterful disappearing act into the guise of the Everyman. If this does not bring him the Oscar nomination he was robbed of in 1999's Man on the Moon, there is a serious lack of justice in the Motion Picture Academy (then again, the Academy proves that about itself every year, doesn't it?).

The Majestic deals with issues such as patriotism and the nature of heroes. These are obviously the very same issues our country is discussing in the wake of Sept. 11. Coming as it does during this time of renewed national pride, the film takes on added depth and meaning. Although it takes place in 1951, the ideas it presents hit home in the here and now. In another time, this would have been a very good movie; in our time, it is a great one.

( out of four)

The Majestic is rated PG for language and mild thematic elements. The running time is 2 hours and 32 minutes.
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