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I woke up today thinking about three movies that I believe are among the greatest underrated films ever made.
Ground Hog Day, Galaxy Quest, and The Majestic. They are almost plotless, fantasy and fantastical, and centered on men who are centered on themselves.
But all have, and will, stand the test of time.
Each has a comic star in a quasi-straight role who are both antagonists and protagonists of their narcissism and internal turmoil. In no particular order and with only small spoilers…
Ground Hog Day (GHD) came out in 1993 and centers on a chronic bore and underachiever of a Pittsburgh TV station who has not risen to the heights he aspires to and is assigned the embarrassing job of covering GHD in Punxsutawney, PA., where Punxsutawney Phil tells the world if there will be an early Spring. Or not. They could have made a film about just that – I’ve been there, the hype and excitement locally is very real and I do believe that residents of that fair ‘burg have all been collectively bitten in the neck by the giant gerbil.
The movie’s timeless plot is that every day, for our man Bill Murray, is the same day. Murray is in every scene. It is his movie and he is magnificent. We watch Murray’s self-absorbed character re-live the absurdity of GHD, about thirty times on screen, but it is worth noting that the late Harold Ramis, the writer of this film and good personal friend of Bill Murray, conceived that GHD was meant to show 10,000 days. The hint of that is Murray learning to play the piano from scratch and mastering it by the third act.
Yet the road Murray took was awful, cretinous, murderous, suicidal, really evil stuff, with no thought of the consequence for the innocent and they are abundant. Andie McDowell plays the love interest, which settles the film down as well as Murray’s selfishness, but the lesson is subtle at the end: be the best person you can be, not just the best person you think you want to be, which in Murray’s case is not so hot.
Jonah Goldberg, editor at large of National Review, wrote a piece on GHD about a decade ago that he dusts off every year. His imagery is a much more high-minded than mine, but it is excellent to pursue.
Galaxy Quest (GQ) came out in 1999 and was triumphant on so many levels, especially mocking TV SciFi, but the main similarities to GHD end with having a comedy lead actor, Tim Allen, as the emotional center of the flick. Allen is a treasure on his own, but the supporting cast really carries the movie, has the best laugh out loud lines, and the most poignant scenes. The Star Trek parody is deliberate and cutting. Does anyone actually root for Captain Kirk? Nah. We expect him to save the day. In Tim Allen’s case he is a gasbag drunk former TV star of the Star Trek clone of the title.
I respect Allen’s body of work. He seems like the kind of guy who lets the people around him flourish in their roles while he does the straight man with a punchline routine.
What a supporting cast: the late Alan Rickman overly made up, a zoftig Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub deadpanning, a teenage Justin Long who literally saves the world but first must mind his mother’s chores, and Sam Rockwell who comes close to stealing the film. I cannot recall the names of all the supporting “alien” actors, but they were fun to watch, again and again…“By Grapthar’s Hammer!”
Then there’s The Majestic, from 2001, with Jim Carrey in the lead as a Hollywood type caught in the McCarthy era of the early 1950’s, falsely accused, who has an accident and develops a wicked case of amnesia. He is rescued by a gentleman (James Whitmore in his final screen role) and brought to a tiny California coastal town that has the horrifying distinction of having made the greatest sacrifice of American servicemen in World War II… over 60 young men in this small ‘burg, as devastating a premise as one can imagine. Carrey’s character bears a remarkable and uncanny resemblance to one of the MIA/honored dead.
Carrey usually overplays comedy roles, but this ain’t one of them. He is as convincingly confused and tender as a man can be, trying not to disappoint a grieving town, an amazed father, and a shell-shocked fiancé who all swear he’s the real deal. Maybe.
Martin Landau plays the father, a proprietor of the sole movie theater, the Majestic, and Landau is a model of the incongruence of torment and delight, of raw faith. Carrey’s road to rebuilding the Majestic, learning the truth, and standing up to a government inquiry of manufactured cowardice rings poetic in what is awful and absurd. Both actors are tremendous.
I have watched all three of these flicks at least two dozen times, taping them when available, and I confess to watching several scenes within each taping even more times just to catch another word, or inflection, or look for a clue, a foreshadowing of I don’t know what. Each one still brings out a certain spiciness in the air near the remote that makes my eyes water each time.
Each film is connected also by a short scene that is part of the Hollywood playbook but speaks volumes of what a thoughtful person can do to ease the pain of someone on the verge of dying.
Lie to them.
In GHD Bill Murray takes care of an old beggar, apparently every day once discovered, and Murray understands he cannot save the man’s life with good intentions but he can make the beggar comfortable with kind words and hot soup.
In GQ both Tim Allen and Alan Rickman lie to dying alien allies about their own duplicitousness and then avenge them heroically.
In The Majestic, Jim Carrey tells a man he knows is not his father that in fact he is his long lost son as Landau dies in his arms.
Sometimes a lie, a good lie, doesn’t hurt. It transforms and transcends the human condition.
These great and underrated movies are about flawed men who don’t stand tall until they see themselves as unsound and unreliable, though each are dumfounded when those around them have always liked and admired and even loved them despite their flaws.
Murray, Allen, and Carrey played themselves and these flicks are among their crowning achievements.
By Kevin Horgan
Kevin Horgan is a regular contributor to The Blue State Conservative. He is an author, retired attorney, and Marine. His work can be found on his blog Our Culture Inchoate, and his books, including his most recent novel A Face on the Flag, are available at Amazon.