The year is 1955, and screenwriter Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey) is locked in a studio meeting to talk about his new script, involving a coal mine disaster. We see only Peter's face as we hear the studio executives tear it to shreds and replace it with their own cockamamie ideas. Peter's willing to go along with every change; he drives a new Mercedes-Benz convertible and has no intention of losing it. But when he goes back to the writer's building he's told to pack his bags and get out. He's been named as a Communist by the House Un-American Activities Committee and will have to testify. He gets drunk, drives up the coast, the car tumbles into a river and he loses his memory. If this were the end, or even just the beginning of a story about the blacklist and its effect on Hollywood - a story of courage, of cowardice, or perhaps an ironic look at how so much of the country cringed in fear, we might have a powerful statement about the ways in which people react under great pressure to conform.
Instead, the film takes us into a completely unbelievable scenario, in which amnesiac Peter is found and brought into the little coast town of Lawson, where he's mistaken for a local World War II hero, Luke Trimble, who was reported missing eleven years before. His 'father,' overacted atrociously by Martin Landau (who looks old enough to be his grandfather) welcomes him back. Dad's old movie house, the Majestic, has long since closed up, but now with 'Luke' back, he will reopen it.
There's an old girlfriend, Adele (Laurie Holden), plus lots of old-fashioned townspeople, and for the next two hours we're treated to a list of all possible permutations of Hollywood's version of what you might call sanitized small-town life. And when Peter/Luke gets his memory back it comes at exactly the moment when the FBI arrives with a subpoena to testify before HUAC in Los Angeles. Now, class: Do we know whether this mild-mannered writer will find the courage to condemn the Committee and recite the First Amendment before a great crowd and the whole world? Do we know if Santa Claus is coming on Christmas Eve? The answer to both questions is of course a resounding yes.
Let's not bother with the plot holes, into which this film could drop and disappear without a trace. Nor with what appears to be director Frank Darabont's compulsion to shoot and edit his films in a state of stasis (think "The Green Mile"), though we need to ask what's happened to his talent since the brilliant "Shawshank Redemption," because that film was close to perfection. The sad news, and it is sad, is that Jim Carrey cannot play a normal human being on screen. In fact, if the camera were not on him constantly, he would disappear into the crowd. Any crowd. And the reason for that is his natural voice. It is a voice without distinction, and without much inflection. It is light, pitched a bit too high to be interesting on the screen, and cannot command our attention. In a word it is ordinary, and ordinary voices are uninteresting when blown up to a 20-by-40-foot screen. Carrey does not have an actor's ability to use his voice as an instrument, to change pace and inflection, to think not about what he's saying but what the audience hears him say. Those are two different things, and it takes a good actor to recognize them. It's a reason why Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Sean Penn, and Robert DeNiro can command us with every word they say; and it's why Jim Carrey cannot.