Mr. Appleton goes to Lawson

Big-city screenwriter learns small-town lessons.


directed by Frank Darabont with Jim Carrey, Martin Landau, and Laurie Holden opens Dec. 21 at Majestic Bay and others

YOU KNOW EXACTLY what you're getting with The Majestic, and there's an odd kind of integrity in that. The retro posters, the '50s setting, the Frank Capra homage, and Jim Carrey's hair—all these are designed to evoke simpler, better times when movie plots weren't so darn complicated. Ads lay out the film's corny, familiar conceit succinctly: B-movie writer Peter (Carrey) suffers amnesia and is mistaken for a long-lost war hero, Luke; fixing up the town's dilapidated cinema restores its spirit; then all is threatened—including his love with a good woman—by the recovery of Peter's memory and identity.

Some people consider "Capra-esque" to be an insult, but Frank Darabont isn't one of them. Previously the director of The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, he throws himself into Majestic's nostalgic haze unabashedly. Carrey drives a beautiful Mercedes-Benz ragtop and sports snazzy shades; he goes on a bender at a Polynesian bar upon losing his job due to wrongful anti-Communist blacklisting; he wakes up on the beach of Lawson, Calif., a town so backlot-precious that any amnesiac would consider it Shangri-la.

Sure enough, the benevolent inhabitants—who lost 62 of their boys in WWII—take to "Luke" like a prodigal son miraculously returned. The widowed proprietor of the shuttered Majestic (Martin Landau) is convinced Peter's his only child, and that wish fulfillment even extends to Luke's law-student fianc饠(Laurie Holden)—whom it takes just one sunset kiss to convince.

In the two-and-one-half-hour Majestic, which strongly recalls The Return of Martin Guerre, the only tension comes from wondering when Peter's inevitable unmasking will come, when his nefarious McCarthyite pursuers will arrive, and when the disappointed townsfolk will, yes, take him back into their hearts again. Like Capra, Darabont honestly doesn't really seem to care that his plot is so transparent. Such sincere, heart-on-the-sleeve sentimentality may be cloying, but Majestic doesn't hide its feel-good, patriotic agenda. The rap against Capra is that he cloaked a reactionary message beneath ersatz populism; here, Darabont similarly pits The People against The System, yet the clear Northern California sunshine makes shadows impossible.

Majestic's real wattage comes from Carrey (everyone else is cast to type), who's acting against two big handicaps: First, the amnesia removes any trace of Peter's personality for the long middle portion of the movie; second, the before-and-after segments don't give him much more character to work with. He's a blank slate, imitating Luke and picking up cues from the Lawson populace, then finally achieving his triumph by again emulating (or eulogizing) the dead war hero. His performance is good, and the movie is respectable, but neither earns a medal for valor.

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