Director Frank Darabont has made no secret of his love of old movies. He's pointed out the importance of including Gilda and Top Hat in The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile respectively, and freely admits that his attraction to the script for The Majestic was that it gave him the opportunity to "salute" even more oldies: The African Queen, The Day The Earth Stood Still, A Streetcar Named Desire... Unfortunately for Darabont, though, the quality and endurance of such titles doesn't rub off on his own product, which rightly sank in the States.
The central conceit is pure Frank Capra: shallow, '50s Hollywood scripter Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey) discovers he's been wrongly blacklisted by the Commie-hunters at the House Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC), gets pissed up, drives off a bridge and loses his memory. He wanders into a cutesy smalltown idyll and is mistaken by Harry Trimble (Martin Landau), owner of The Majestic picture house, for his missing war hero son, Luke...
But the Capra link ends with the synopsis, as Darabont's execution is far too clumsy to deserve any favourable comparison with the director of It's A Wonderful Life. For starters, Capra would have brought this movie in at well under two hours. Darabont can't even get it below two-and-a-half. And while his steady pacing might have worked well in The Green Mile (Three hours, eight minutes), that particular slab of celluloid had a much smarter script and a host of perfectly pinpointed performances. The Majestic simply drags. And drags. And drags. Everyone talks in uninspired homilies or makes uninspiring speeches, Carrey's most valiant tear-spewing efforts fail to wring any drama out of Sloane's bone-dry script, and there're only so many loving shots of The Majestic's glowing neon sign a sane audience can take.
Look hard and you'll spy the odd moment of genuine charm. Darabont's Boy's Own B-movie-within-a-movie (Sand Pirates Of The Sahara, starring The Evil Dead's Bruce Campbell as a cheesy Errol Flynn-alike), for example, offers a flash of light entertainment, and Landau and Hill Street Blues' Gerry Black (as The Majestic's elderly doorman) deliver faultless performances. But such glimmers are few and far between, as story and character arcs plod along woefully predictable paths.
Most disappointing of all, though, is the fudging of an encouragingly doomy undercurrent involving the Hollywood blacklist. For when the Witch hunters eventually catch up with Peter, and when it looks like Darabont may finally turn the heat up from tepid to scorching (there's nothing like a bit of courtroom grandstanding to kick some life into a movie), all we get is an over-reliance on cliché and a disregard for realism.
All of which make for a lacklustre follow-up to both an amazing debut and a great sophomore effort. Maybe Darabont just can't cut it if he isn't adapting a Stephen King prison movie.
It's The Truman Show without the twist, it's Capra but crapper, it pines for a mythical Golden Age when audiences had simpler tastes and were more easily pleased... And there's nothing majestic about that.