Pleasantville Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

It looks like it's going to be another sunny day. High 72, low 72, and not a cloud in the sky.

Welcome to Pleasantville

In the universe of "Pleasantville", a black-and-white Fifties sitcom, life is... pleasant. The high school basketball team never misses a shot, nothing ever catches on fire (consequently, the firemen only rescue cats stuck in trees), husband and wives sleep in separate beds, high school sweethearts go no further than holding hands and getting 'pinned', and everything is in varying shades of gray.

You got to get us out of here!
Because we don't belong here!

For David (Tobey Maguire of "The Ice Storm"), a bashful teenager, the perfect world of Pleasantville is an escape from the harsh realities of his less-than-perfect life, where he is a nobody. With its white picket fences, wholesome family values, and stability, Pleasantville is a much more civilized alternative to the real world's economic upheaval, environmental turmoil, single-parent families, and bleak prospects for the future.

Oh god... we're like stuck in Nerdville.

One night, David finds himself fighting with his promiscuous twin sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon of "Freeway") for the television remote, which is irreparably broken during the struggle. Before they know it, an ominous television repairman (Don Knotts) shows up at the door, and offers the two kids a brand new high-tech remote. However, David and Jennifer soon realize that it is not just your run-of-the-mill Radio Shack remote when they are magically transported to the world of Pleasantville.

We're supposed to be in school.
We're supposed to be at home. We're supposed to be in color!

Jeff Daniels

After the initial disorientation, they realize not only are they now in black-and white, but they have assumed the identities of the television show's two teenage children, Bud and Mary Sue. They then meet their chipper television parents, George (William H. Macy of "Air Force One") and Betty (Joan Allen of "Face/off"), who seem oblivious to the fact that their model children are not who they appear to be.

Skip, you can pin me anytime you want to... or maybe I should pin you.

For David/Bud, it is a dream come true, living out his life in comfortable surroundings without the struggle or strife of real life. On the other hand, Jennifer/Mary Sue abhors her new environment, finding the local scene too bland for her liking. Being her usual forward self, she aggressively liberates the virginity of the captain of the basketball team, Skip (Paul Walker). Her reckless activities then begin a chain reaction that unleashes a torrent of unexpected changes in Pleasantville.

If you don't go out on a date with him, you might upset their whole universe!

At first, the changes are small, such as a single flower appearing in color, or the basketball team losing a game. However, as more teens become sexually awakened, they too begin to appear in technicolor shades, as do their surroundings. At first, David/Bud tries very hard to preserve Pleasantville's pristine qualities.

You can't always like what you do, but you still have to do it... because it's your job.

However, David/Bud soon begins to see that things in Pleasantville aren't as good as they seem to begin with. He learns that his boss at the soda shop, Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels of "Speed"), feels stifled by his scripted and stagnant role as a hamburger flipper-- instead, he yearns to express himself artistically, and he silently carries a torch for Betty. And while the Pleasantville households are governed by traditional family values, women are not expected to be independent-- instead they are relegated to being contented by waiting on their husbands hand-and-foot. Furthermore, the books in the town's library are all blank, leaving the town's teens completely unaware of the joys of literature. It's a slow road to realization, but David/Bud soon understands that there was some merit in the troubled world that he has left behind.

If George didn't get his dinner, any one of us could be next.

Unfortunately, the changes in the physical and social fabric of Pleasantville do not go unchallenged. As the town's residents begin to explore the joys of art, books, passion, and color, the dark side of human nature is also unleashed. Spearheaded by the town's mayor, Big Bob (the late J.T. Walsh of "Breakdown"), a conservative black-and-white backlash is organized. Willing to do anything to maintain the status quo, their fear and paranoia lead to intolerance, hate-crimes, and violence against the newly colored.

What went wrong?
Nothing went wrong... people change.

Pleasantville Poster

The high concept idea of being trapped in a television show is nothing new-- it was used last in "Stay Tuned", a forgettable John Ritter comedy from 1992. However, what writer/director Gary Ross ("Big", "Dave") has done is combined the high concept with high touch. In its first hour, "Pleasantville" acquits itself nicely as a 'fish out of water' comedy, with David and Jennifer being confronted with the idiosyncratic characteristics of their new surroundings. However, as the film rolls into the latter half, it becomes a Capra-esque exploration into finding self-fulfillment in a stifling environment where conformity is valued over all else. In addition, "Pleasantville" also becomes an examination of the incessant constant of change, and the strength often required to deal with the consequences of its wake. Like this past summer's "The Truman Show" and this fall's "Antz", "Pleasantville" is a satirical yet moving pro-individualist parable. However, in this case, Ross has almost done it perfectly.

We're safe for now... good thing we're in a bowling alley.

Further adding to the film's impressive intentions and execution are the delightful performances by the cast. Maguire and Witherspoon do excellent turns as the anachronistic teens, adeptly handling the transformations that their characters undergo. Macy, despite the bland and urbane trappings of his TV-dad character, exudes sentiment as his character becomes increasingly disoriented by the changes to his cozy little existence. Allen and Daniels are both expressive in their portrayal of characters trying to make sense of new experiences while re-discovering their long-repressed passions.

What's it like out there?
It's louder, scarier, and a lot more dangerous.
Sounds fantastic!

While the third act of "Pleasantville" does get bogged down by laggard pacing and a drawn-out denouement, this shortcoming is easily overlooked by the provocative nature of the material. Top marks are earned for the excellent nostalgic production design, as well as the extraordinary visualization that seamlessly transforms the setting from a drab and sterile utopia to a vibrant and colorful community. Not only is this one of the better films of the year, but it could arguably be called a new classic.

It's not supposed to be like this.
It's not supposed to be anything.

Images courtesy of New Line Cinema. All rights reserved.

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