It is 1951 and screenwriter Peter Appleton (Carrey) is about to get his big break when he's blacklisted as a Communist (due to his having attended meetings of a group a prospective girlfriend was a member of, to impress her) and subsequently fired from the studio. No one wants to be associated with him, not even his actress lover, so naturally he heads to the bar, where he tells a bottle of beer all his problems. And then he decides to take a little drive up the coast...
After drunk-driving off a bridge, Peter miraculously survives, albeit without his memory. He wanders into the nearby town of Lawson, California. In a bizarre coincidence, Peter is a dead ringer for Luke Trimble — one of the town's many young men who never returned from the war. Convinced that he's found his missing son, Harry Trimble (Martin Landau) takes Peter in and tries to pick up their lives together right where they left off.
Peter tries to fit into his new identity, hoping to regain his memories. Besides, it's not a bad life: Luke's beautiful lover, lawyer Adele Stanton (Laurie Holden), is all over him, the town has suddenly sprung back to life with excitement after years of mourning for their lost sons, and he and his "father" rebuild a movie palace Harry used to run, the Majestic. But all the while, the House of Un-American Activities Committee is hunting him down...
Provides examples of:
- The '50s: The Second Red Scare is key to the plot.
- Alliterative Name: Sandra Sinclair (Amanda Detmer).
- Amnesiac Hero: Peter loses his memories in the first act.
- An Arm and a Leg: Bob Laffert, a World War II veteran, lost his hand due to a combat wound.
- B-Movie: Sand Pirates of the Sahara, Peter's new movie. Complete with a cameo by the king of B-movies, Bruce Campbell, as the dashing hero.
- Back from the Dead: Luke, sort of. Peter, when he returns to the court.
- The Cameo: Interestingly, these performers all get special billing in the end credits.
- Bruce Campbell plays the hero of Sand Pirates of the Sahara.
- The voices of the meddling executives are all notable real-life Hollywood directors and occasional actors: Carl Reiner and his son Rob, Garry Marshall, Paul Mazursky, and Sydney Pollack.
- Matt Damon is the voice of the real Luke Trimble in the sequence that sees Peter read his last letter to Adele.
- Chekhov's Gun: It turns out to be Sand Pirates of the Sahara. When the Majestic Theater unexpectedly plays it one night, seeing it makes Peter remember who he is.
- Cloud Cuckoo Lander: What the locals first think Peter is.
- A Dog Named "Dog": "Simple, I like it."
- Defrosting Ice Queen: Adele.
- Eagleland: Lawson, California seems to embody Type 1 for the most part, though it can also come across as a tad more progressive than the times. On the other hand, Los Angeles in general and the HUAC represent Type 2, showing the darker sides of the decade.
- Easy Amnesia: It lasts exactly long enough.
- Executive Meddling: In-Universe several scenes show Peter trying to deal with executives toying with his masterpiece script Ashes to Ashes, especially them constantly trying to shove in scenes of a dog doing cute things purely because they think a dog is needed. Their banter and suggestions are painfully realistic in their absurdity.
- Fan Boy: Harry Trimble loves films, to the extent that when he misses a reel change he won't stop apologizing. Even though it was because he had a stroke!
- The Ghost: The woman whom Peter attempted to woo by attending meetings of a Communist group she was a member of; never seen, but important to the backstory and in the falling action revealed to have been the one who named Peter to the committee, to protect her own job. Alas, when Peter is set free they intend to turn their attentions to her.
- Hard-Work Montage: The whole town helps to rebuild the Majestic.
- Horrible Hollywood: Hollywood during The '50s and smack in the middle of McCarthyism, with everybody ready to press the "Communist" button to ruin whatever (or whoever) they disagree with — or to save their own skins, as in the case of Peter's first ex-girlfriend, who named him to protect her own television producer job. And otherwise, there's the usual meddling executives to put up with.
- Identical Stranger: The entire plot runs on this concept.
- Last-Second Word Swap: Played for Drama: "Dad, I'm not... ready to let you go." note
- Let Them Die Happy: Near the end of the second act, at Harry's deathbed, Peter almost confesses he's not his son, but can't bring himself to do it, so he lets Harry die thinking his son truly came home.
- Most Writers Are Writers: Peter is a blacklisted screenwriter.
- Never Found the Body: Why Harry believes Peter is Luke.
- Oh, Crap!:
- Literally said when Peter remembers who he is while watching Sand Pirates of the Sahara.
- A variant occurs a few scenes earlier when Luke's old music teacher invites him to play classical piano for the crowd at the town festival. While Peter hasn't remember who he was yet (so it's not like he's fully aware he's a fraud), he also knows he's being asked to do something he isn't familiar with, so he's naturally reluctant to go on stage.
- Old Soldier: Emmett, the head usher of The Majestic back in the day, served in World War One and we even see his full uniform at the ceremony honoring those who didn't make it back.
- Only Sane Man: When the whole town is overjoyed at the "return" of Luke, Bob Leffert (a one-handed veteran who knew the real Luke) is cynical and sees Peter as an imposter from the start and fears he may be setting the town for more heartbreak.Bob: I knew Luke Trimble. I didn't like him much. Not saying he's a bad guy. Just rubbed me the wrong way. You know that feelin'? Somebody rubs you the wrong way, and you can't even explain why? You kinda rub me that way. Not that that makes you Luke. So, I wanna know is what kinda game are you runnin'? Who are you really?
Peter: Just a guy trying to figure things out.
Bob: This town's had enough heartbreak. Too much. Me, I think you're settin' everybody up for more. I hope I'm wrong. I haven't had to kill anybody since the war.
- Posthumous Character: Luke, whose integrity becomes a catalyst for Peter's own personal growth.Peter: The fact is I... I've never been a man of great conviction. I never saw the percentage in it... and quite frankly, I suppose I, uh... lacked the courage. See, I'm not like Luke Trimble. He had the market cornered on those things. I never met the guy, but I feel like I've gotten to know him. The thing is, I can't help wondering what he'd say... if he were standing here right now. You know, I think what I think he'd probably tell you: the America represented in this room... is not the America he died defending.
- Precious Puppy: One of the major running gags is the In-Universe Executive Meddling trying to shove a dog in every film project they can purely for the sake of Rule of Cute.
- Quest for Identity: Peter tries so hard to be Luke.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Peter gives an epic one to the House Un-American Activities Committee when he's called before them while they're investigating allegations he's a Communist. Instead of giving the canned, cooperative speech his lawyer instructed, Peter reads from the First Amendment and denounces the Committee's activities, saying they're the ones who are "Un-American", citing Luke's death in World War II along with so many others to (in part) preserve those rights as a slam against them. He's resigned afterward to being imprisoned for contempt of Congress, though his lawyer says they won't as that would make him a martyr, and he technically named an actual Communist (his first ex-girlfriend who apparently named him first). Because of this, they'll let it go.
- Red Scare: Peter is under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee as part of the Second Red Scare.
- Ripped from the Headlines: This being the early 1950s, one of the film execs wants to always push polio-related elements into the script ("the disease", as he calls it), always in the most misguided way possible. He's overruled each time... only for the dog to be pushed instead.
- Running Gag: The dog that the execs want to add to Peter's script keeps popping up.Clyde: Communist trash from beginning to end! There's a dog in it I quite like, but asides that...
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here: This happens to Peter when after putting the HUAC in their place and managing to keep his job as a writer, Peter finally has enough of Horrible Hollywood on his first meeting afterwards, listening to all the executives trying to shove a saccharine finale to a war movie script that (if it's anything like Peter's was) doesn't needs it, and goes back to the town. It's when the executives start thinking about adding a part where a dog apparently heretofore unmentioned anywhere else in the script races to meet its Returning War Vet master that Peter Appleton truly, finally, has had enough.
- Secret Secret-Keeper: Involving the same secret of "Luke"'s true identity.
- First, Adele knew for a long time Peter wasn't Luke, and tried hard not to fall in love with him. In this case, she kept the secret for the sake of the other townspeople because "Luke"'s return revitalized them.
- After the secret comes out, Emmett, the elderly black gentleman who ushered The Majestic back in the day admits they knew for a while Peter was not Luke — Luke could not play jazz on the piano.
- Shaming the Mob: When Peter decides to throw out his planned "confession" he starts attacking the Committee for the values they are supporting and how these are completely against the ideals America just fought for in World War II. After this his lawyer notes how effective it was by making him a "hero" in public opinion and to prevent from making him a "martyr" they won't send him to jail for contempt.
- Show Within a Show: Sand Pirates of the Sahara. The DVD includes the complete sequence as a bonus feature.
- Shut Up, Hannibal!: When Peter is done shaming the House Un-American Committee with reading the First Amendment and citing what a hero Luke Trimble was and what he died for, he silences the committee by showing them the Congressional Medal of Honor with which Luke was honored for his valor above and beyond the call of duty.
- Soldiers at the Rear: Peter mentions in passing that he spent World War II working in a PX in New Jersey. This is puts him in stark contrast to Luke, who died in combat.
- Throwing Out the Script: Peter has a prepared statement for HUAC that was prepared by his lawyer and specifically tailored to get him off the Hollywood blacklist. However, when he starts to read it his throat goes dry and he realizes how wrong all of this is. He proceeds to chew out the committee and tell them what America is truly founded on.
- Token Minority: Emmett is a black man, the only person of color in the film and the small town of Lawson, California. Nobody appears to treat him badly, but he recalls visiting France as a soldier in World War II where the (white) French people greeted him gratefully and didn't care about his race at all, with it having been a moving experience he's always remembered.
- Witch Hunt: HUAC and their Commie hunt.
- Yes-Man: During the screenplay review sessions, the guy pushing the cute dog is identified in the script as "Boss". The rest of the execs in the room eagerly scoop up whatever idea he throws at them, no matter how cheesy, sappy and forced it is. And plotwise, the big arc in Peter's story is his realisation he can't really stomach being one of those — both in filmmaking and life in general.
- You Can't Go Home Again: In the late going, when Peter regains his memory, Lawson can't be home for him any more. But once he clears his name and returns triumphantly to Hollywood, he finds there is no happiness or satisfaction for him there either. He decides to forge a new life in Lawson as Peter, not Luke: He becomes an employee at the Majestic and lives happily ever after with Adele.