Jim Carrey has been brilliant in flamboyant, comic roles and in quieter, subtler roles, but both kinds of acting have come from the same source inside him – the kind of anger that fuels a lot of actors and comedians. He uses his hostility brilliantly. One of his best performances was in “The Truman Show,” because he could draw on his own conflicts about the pressures of being constantly watched and the struggle to maintain a respectable surface despite an increasing passion to be iconoclastic. “The Mask” and “Batman and Robin” gave him roles that expressed both sides of the duality that is the subtext of many of his performances.
For the first time, in “The Majestic,” Carrey opens himself up to draw from a more vulnerable part of himself as he plays a character who literally does not know who he is. It is not a great performance, but it is a moving one, within the context of the story and as an invitation to share some of Carrey’s own journey to a broader maturity as a performer.
“The Majestic” shares this double layer of meaning because it is as much about the movies and the role they play in our lives as it is about the characters and the story. The movie begins in a Hollywood story meeting in the early 1950’s. Before we see anything we hear a group of studio executives (hilarious vocal cameos by some of Hollywood’s top directors) eviscerating a script by casually throwing in every possible movie cliché. As they call out “How about a dog!” and “The kid should be crippled!” the screenwriter sits there, stunned into silence. Finally, he musters up a diplomatic, “That’s….amazing.”
The screenwriter is Pete (Carrey). His first screen credit, a formulaic B-movie, is about to arrive in theaters, and the starlet who appears in it is his girlfriend. A script he really cares about has been accepted for production. He feels like he is on the brink of achieving not only his dreams but the ultimate dream of every American. What could be more of a dream come true than the movies?
But dreams have a way of turning into nightmares. Pete’s life is turned upside down when his name comes up in the investigations into communism in Hollywood being conducted by the House of Representatives. Pete is so upset that he gets drunk, and then he goes for a long drive.
Pete has an accident and his car goes off a bridge. He is washed up on shore and is awakened, in a sly reference to the studio executives’ suggestions, when a dog licks his face. Pete has been so shocked by the accident that he has lost his memory. The dog’s owner takes him back to town, a community so idyllically Norman Rockwell that all the men call him “son” and the waitress at the diner asks “What can I do you for?” and serves him up some delicious scrambled eggs.
Everyone in the town says that Pete looks familiar. And Harry Trimble (Martin Landau) says he knows who Pete is – Trimble’s son, Luke, a war hero reported missing in action. Harry seems so sure that Pete begins to be persuaded. The town has lost many young men in the war, and his return is cause for celebration. Harry is so excited he even pledges to reopen the family business – a movie theater called “The Majestic.”
As Pete tries to figure out who he really is, he meets people from Luke’s past, including his girl, Adele (Laurie Holden). Meanwhile, FBI agents, convinced that Pete’s disappearance is evidence of his participation in a Communist conspiracy, resolves to track him down.
The freedom from a past allows Luke/Pete to think about what his dream really is. Still the screenwriter, he “fills in the blanks” to understand the lives of the people in the town. But in rebuilding The Majestic and connecting to Harry and Adele he achieves a greater authenticity of feeling and spirit than he had before.
Harry says that in a movie the good guy should always win, and this is a movie that Harry would love. It has enough of the guaranteed elements for warming the heart to please both the fictional studio executives in the movie and the real-life ones who got this made. And it presents these homespun values with enough sophistication (and a little bit of “just-kidding” ironic distance) to make it work. It plays with history and gets a little corny, but the movie itself has such a good time with it that the audience does, too.
Parents should know that the movie has brief strong and vulgar language, mild sexual references, a scary accident, and a sad on-screen death. Many characters are mourning sons killed in the war. One returning soldier is disabled and bitter. Pete responds to bad news by getting drunk and he drives while he is drunk.
Families who see this movie should talk about the Red Scare of the 1950’s that blacklisted many Hollywood writers and performers. As recently as 1999, when distinguished director Elia Kazan received a special Oscar, there were protests because he cooperated with the House Committee, as Pete is urged to do here. Some of those called to testify refused to cooperate. What were the different pressures that Pete had to reconcile? What were the priorities that made him decide what he did? How did his ideas about himself change? Why?
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy some of the movies that inspired it, including “Hail the Conquering Hero” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” They should also see some of the other movies about the Red Scare, like “Tail Gunner Joe” and “The Front.”