It is 1951 and screenwriter Peter Appleton (Carrey) is about to get his big break when he's blacklisted as a Communist and subsequently fired from the studios. No one wants to be associated with him, so naturally he heads to the bar and tells a bottle of beer all his problems.
After drunk-driving his car off a bridge, Appleton miraculously survives, albeit without his memory. He wanders into the town of Lawson, California. In a bizarre coincidence, Peter is a dead ringer for Luke Trimble — one of the town's 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 their lives together back up 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 come back to life with excitement, and he and his "father" rebuild a movie palace Harry used to run, the Majestic. All the while, the House of Un-American Activities Committee is hunting him down...
Provides examples of:
- Amnesiac Hero: Peter.
- B-Movie: Sand Pirates of the Sahara, Peter's new movie. Complete with a cameo by the king of B-movies, Bruce Campbell.
- Back from the Dead: Luke, sort of. Peter, when he returns to the court.
- Chekhov's Gun: 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, 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 '50s: The Red Scare being one of the most important details.
- Hard-Work Montage: The whole town helps to rebuild the Majestic.
- Horrible Hollywood: Hollywood during The '50s and smack in the middle of MacCarthyism, with everybody ready to press the "Communist" button to ruin whatever (or whoever) they disagree with. And the Executive Meddling, just like ever.
- Identical Stranger: The entire plot runs on this.
- Last-Second Word Swap: Played for Drama: "Dad, I'm not... ready to let you go." Note
- Let Them Die Happy: At Harry's deathbed, Peter almost confesses he's not his son, but can't bring himself to it, so he lets Harry die thinking his son truly came home..
- Most Writers Are Writers: Peter is a blacklisted writer.
- 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.
- Red Scare: Peter is under investigation by the House of Un-American Activities Committee.
- 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!: 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 Tastes Like Diabetes 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:
- Emmett, the elderly black gentleman who ushered The Majestic back in the day, knew for a while Peter was not "Luke" because Luke could not play jazz on the piano.
- Adele knew for a long time and tried hard not to fall in love with him.
- 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
- 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 Luke was honored with 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.
- Witch Hunt: HUAC and their Commie hunt.
- You Can't Go Home Again: When Peter regains his memory, Lawson can't be home for him any more. Once he clears his name and returns triumphantly to Hollywood, he finds there is no happiness or satisfaction for him there. He decides to forge a new life in Lawson as Peter, not Luke.