After bringing about "The Shawshank Redemption" and walking "The Green Mile," producer/director Frank Darabont plays with the contrast between two California towns of the early 1950s in "The Majestic." There's glittering Hollywood, an outwardly welcoming place whose growing anti-Communist paranoia wrongfully blacklists B-movie scribe Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey) just as he's about to move up to writing A pictures. And then there's Lawson, a beaten-down little coastal town that becomes Appleton's new home after a night of despondent boozing ends in a car accident that strips him of his memory and deposits him, unconscious, on Lawson's shoreline.
To the town's citizens, the agreeable amnesiac is obviously Luke Trimble, one of the 62 boys Lawson sent to World War II and never got back. Luke's "miraculous" reappearance buoys the community's spirits, and almost everyone pitches in to help resurrect the Trimble family business, a formerly proud but now-dilapidated movie theater named ... Cinema Paradiso? No, smart-ass. The Majestic.
Written by the relative novice Michael Sloane (a high-school chum of Darabont's), the film harkens back to the rural escape fantasies and existential morality plays Rod Serling used to pen for the "Twilight Zone" TV series, albeit with the evil of red-baiting named instead of allegorized. Yet, where Serling was ever the skeptic, seeing behind every neighborhood assemblage an angry mob about to form, Darabont and Sloane believe in the mob -- and the heart-tugging swell of stringed instruments, and the ability of passionate oration to bring about justice. None of these ideas is patently bad, but to apply them as a feel-good salve on the lingering wound of the witch hunts is borderline evil.
Had Carrey plied his trade in the '50s, he never would have risen above B movies himself, so his workmanlike performance is an appropriate center for the film. Martin Landau makes the best of the underwritten role of Luke's father, Harry Trimble, who the script discards as soon as his wide-eyed joy over the perceived family reunion is no longer useful. The real star of "The Majestic," however -- its most potent cattle prod of nostalgia -- is the theater that is its namesake. The Majestic is one of those old-style charmers that has every amenity the premultiplex era offered, including a wooden ticket booth and a cozy balcony.
Balconies. Sigh. What kind of oration will it take to bring them back?