It ain’t fer nuthin’ that there’s a poster from Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life festooning a wall of the crumbling Majestic Theatre in Frank Darabont’s The Majestic, a movie that tries its damnedest to bring the kind of movie Capra used to make back to theaters. Therein lies the intent and therein lies the problem — or one of the problems. Frank Darabont has the capacity to be a first-rate Frank Darabont, but the best he can hope for in this attempt is to be a second-rate Frank Capra. What Darabont and screenwriter Michael Sloane have come up with is a by-the-numbers imitation of the least appealing aspect of Capra — the sentimentality that bubbles right on over into the gooey, or what Capra’s detractors called “Capracorn.” What they missed was Capra’s sense of invention, his love of surprise and innovation, and the ability of Capra and his writers (usually Jo Swerling or Robert Riskin) to create believable characters with quirky traits that made them seem real. Very little about The Majestic seems even remotely real — a situation made just that much worse by constantly “sweetening” the imagery with CGI effects. Worse yet, the film is completely devoid of surprise. There isn’t one thing that happens in The Majestic that isn’t wholly predictable, and usually from a distance of several of its many, many reels. Somewhere along the way Darabont and Sloane remembered that Capra’s films tended to have some social message — usually in a fairly minor key — and so they upped the stakes by making their hero, Peter Appleton (a nice, sincere, unexciting turn by Jim Carrey), a victim of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s infamous House UnAmerican Activities Committee blacklist. Fair enough. While it’s been explored numerous times in recent — better — films, this remains an important topic. The problem is that The Majestic brings nothing new to bear on the subject. Charlie Chaplin did it better in 1957 with A King in New York and Martin Ritt brought it home more forcefully and realistically in 1976 with The Front. Even such an unabashed sudser as Sydney Pollack’s The Way We Were offered a more honest and complex take. Again, it’s predictability that scuttles The Majestic. Show me the viewer who is surprised by Appleton’s speech at the congressional hearing, and I’ll show you a viewer who hasn’t seen too many movies. Worse, the speech has “insert applause here” written all over it, and since the filmmakers don’t trust the audience to provide the applause (wisely, in this case), they hand this task over to the news media and the assorted onlookers at the hearing. This isn’t just cheesy — it’s pretty unrealistic to show this kind of public display of anti-McCarthyism in 1951. The sad thing about the predictable mawkishness of The Majestic is that the film has good things in it and is constantly good to look at, with one of the most beautifully achieved sound designs I’ve ever encountered. The era is beautifully evoked, and the filmmaker did his homework in terms of the movies referenced in the course of the film. The performances are first-rate all the way through, and the film is classically professional, but it’s all in the service of an ill-conceived premise and a script that can’t figure out a way to make the concept even slightly fresh. This is something that ensnares nearly every filmmaker who falls prey to the idea of “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” and Darabont is no exception. What so often never occurs to people when they undertake to emulate the films of the past is the fact that the very films they’re trying to duplicate are themselves great because they were the work of men who were actively trying not to “make ’em like they used to.” In failing to grasp that, the homage is in fact something of an insult to the very thing it means to honor.
Before you comment
The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.