The Majestic Jim Carrey

23-Apr-09 1:15 PM by
Filed under Reviews; 8 comments.

I recently rewatched the 1998 film The Truman Show. I've often considered the movie, ostensibly a comedy, to be Jim Carrey's first dramatic role, representing a turning point for the actor similar to what Stranger than Fiction did for Will Ferrell. (The two movies aren't all that different in plot, either.) Not to say that comedic roles are of lesser value, or that Carrey wouldn't or shouldn't continue to capitalize on that strength; but The Truman Show demonstrated that he was not limited to that genre. Inspired to trace his growth, I turned to his next dramatic film, The Majestic.

The Majestic (click for full size)One morning in 1953, Jim Carrey wakes up on a California beach shore with no memory of anything that's come before. The residents of the nearby sleepy town of Lawson find the amnesiac Carrey to bear a striking resemblance to Luke Trimble, one of their 60+ young men who died in World War II. Since Luke's body was never found, and a decade can age both a person's face and his father's and fianceé's memories, it seems plausible that their lost son has returned.

But there is a fundamental flaw: this is not the movie's opening. We are instead introduced to Peter Appleton, a Hollywood screenplay writer whose career is a victim of the Red Scare. Depressed and with nowhere to turn, he goes for a drive one rainy night, resulting in the accident that leaves him on Lawson's shore.

As a result, the audience finds no mystery in Carrey's identity; even as we can relate to the hope that he is Luke, we know that he is not. This approach is not without benefit, as we are able to cringe as we see the townsfolk expect of "Luke" what only we know he cannot provide. But if we are to be introduced to Carrey first as someone who is decidedly not Luke, then further exposure to Appleton's life would've made the development of Carrey's character more marked.

Despite that one scripting decision, characters are what the film is all about, and the director knows how to use them. The Majestic is directed by Frank Darabont, who later relied on some of the same talent in The Mist. Luke's fianceé, played by Laurie Holden, has a worldliness that sets her apart from the townsfolk, yet they share a faith and hope in common. Jeffrey DeMunn as the town's mayor is more optimistic than a stereotypical politician, yet two scenes — one in which he speaks not a word — subtly make a more serious character of him. Its these smaller roles that are perhaps the show's strength: though Carrey is the star, The Majestic is ultimately an ensemble show. Carrey is given scenes with almost every character, major and minor, giving a depth to what would otherwise be throwaway extras. Even smaller parts by Bob Balaban and Bruce Campbell find their talent effectively exploited.

Everything ties together in a story that gives its characters numerous obstacles, but not without believable means for resolution. The climax comes in a scene that is so tense, and in which Appleton is so nervous, that I was overwhelmed by the tension and had to pause the movie to calm down before proceeding. For something that powerful, the buildup is worth it. Otherwise, at 2.5 hours, the film might be a bit long — and oddly, and the titular Majestic, a theater Luke Trimble and his dad used to run and which Carrey works to restore, is featured prominently for only 20 minutes, starting 1:15 into the film. But ultimately, though I was initially surprised by much of the plot, many of those surprises proved to be pleasant ones, as even if I didn't know what the director was doing, he proved that he did.

This cross between Random Harvest, Pleasantville, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (with an incongruous tip of the hat to Saving Private Ryan near the end) deserved better than the reception it received upon its 2001 release. Even if the script is as unoriginal as the critics decried, Carrey's performance had me on the edge of my seat, something Ace Ventura never could've done.

An Election Too Close to Call

20-Oct-08 12:54 PM by
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The 2000 presidential election was the first I was eligible to participate in. I remember being surprised and disappointed at how slowly that election resolved itself, but I confess I didn't pay it much attention — I was still in college and felt I had more immediate concerns, like exams and concerts. The election also seemed a dull matter of lawsuits and recounts; I cared more about the resolution than the methodology.

Fast forward eight years, and I hope I'm a bit more civic minded. Still, I'm more a film buff than a politician, so it wasn't until I heard Kevin Spacey was the lead that I found myself wanting to see HBO's recent dramatization of that convoluted election.

Recount logoRecount, which aired in May and came to DVD in August, begins on November 7, 2000, and ends on December 13. What begins as a clear loss for Vice President Gore quickly snowballs as confused voters step forward and political affiliations persuade officials into partisan decisions. A series of lawsuits, hearings, and legal interpretations showcases this affair that was more drawn out than I recalled.

The title suggests a staid documentary about recounting ballots, but it's a tenser political drama than that. I live in a so-called blue state and so was challenged to find anyone who wanted to watch with me a movie "about Bush stealing the election", as they called it. I wanted to watch it not so that it would infuriate me, but for it to serve as a case study of the process in which this country will be engaging in two weeks. Recount is a look at the American election system and its flaws and loopholes — at how it should work and how it actually works.

This election is brought to life by an award-winning cast. Kevin Spacey and Tom Wilkinson play Ron Klein and James Baker, recount overseers for the Gore and Bush camps, respectively. The supporting cast includes Denis Leary (born in the city I now live in), John Hurt (Watership Down, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones 4), Bob Balaban (Waiting for Guffman, City Slickers II), and Ed Begley Jr. (Arrested Development, Star Trek: Voyager). DVD extras include interviews between the actors and the real-life characters they portray.

Attorney David Boies (Begley) invites Ron Klain (Spacey) to eat "the red ones" for breakfast.
Attorney David Boies (Begley) invites Ron Klain (Spacey)
to eat "the red ones" for breakfast.

We see only the backs, never the faces, of the actors portraying Al Gore and George W. Bush, and after the film's first few minutes, we don't see even that, being limited to their voices on speakerphone (or historical footage on TV). Although this conscious effort is a bit awkward, it underscores that the leading roles are their campaign leaders. In one particularly tense scene in the Supreme Court, we can see Kevin Spacey hold his breath as Ed Begley Jr. is asked difficult questions. There's a pause as pregnant as a chad that gives the audience time to consider how trapped and speechless we would be in that same situation, and Spacey doesn't let his breath out until Begley somehow spins an honest and helpful answer beyond the eloquence of your average American. Even though we know how Recount ends as much as we did with Titanic, it's the behind-the-scenes twists, turns, and surprises that make this film more than a historical recounting.

The cast and crew also has a pair of surprising geek connections. First is that the script was written by Danny Strong, a minor actor from Joss Whedon's Buffy and Firefly series. Second is a ten-second cameo by William Schallert, prolific actor from the Patty Duke and Dobie Gillis era. Though insignificant in this film, Mr. Schallert always brings a smile to my face, which those depressed by the remainder of this film could likely use.

Whoever the stars are on either side, it Kevin Spacey's camp that is the lead. Democrats in the audience will be happy to see their party portrayed as the scrappy underdogs working out of a strip mall while the evil and finely-tailored Republicans play hardball to get their way. I do not necessarily interpret this angle as a liberal bias; every movie needs a protagonist, and given that we all know how the movie ends, there is little cinematic alternative but to cast the two parties in these roles. Besides, I came not for the people, but for the process — and ultimately, regardless of the fairness of the process, I must believe in this closing statement for the hope of future elections:

"The system worked. There were no tanks on the street. This peaceful transfer of power in the most emotional and trying of times is a testament to the strength of the Constitution and to our faith in the rule of law."