Pleasantville
(US 1998)

Starring:
Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, J.T. Walsh

Director: Gary Ross

Writing credits: Gary Ross

New Line Cinema * 116 minutes

Perhaps the most anticipated film of the fall season, Gary Ross' PLEASANTVILLE is an exploration of our society's fear of both change and of sexuality, masquerading as a sweet little film about two 1990s kids transported into a 1950s television sitcom.

David (Tobey Maguire, looking like a nerdy Joaquin Phoenix) is a sweet kid who can't get a date, and escapes his high school angst and dysfunctional home life by immersing himself in a 1950's sitcom called "Pleasantville", which plays on a "TV Land"-type cable network. His sister Jennifer (Alicia Silverstone lookalike Reese Witherspoon) is a boy-crazy Valley-girl type.

A mysterious TV repairman repairman (Don Knotts, in a hilariously retro turn) gives them a remote with "more oomph to it, which transports them into Pleasantville. They become "Bud" and "Mary Sue", offspring of Mom "Betty" (Joan Allen, who is making a career of playing prim, sexually repressed women) and Dad "George" (portrayed to perfection by William H. Macy). David understands the potential problems in disturbing the perfect, if sterile lives of Pleasantville's denizens, but Jennifer intends to make the best of the situation. As she, and later on, David, introduce the people of Pleasantville to some of the realities that exist outside their insulated world things like books, sex, and double beds, Pleasantville begins to take on the colors of that outside world.

The first hour has a number of very funny moments, as we learn how the sitcom universe really works. The local firemen, unaccustomed to dealing with actual fires, respond only to the word "Cat!" Public rest rooms have no toilets, because in the sitcom universe, bodily functions don't exist. It also has some genuine poignancy, as Bud gently helps his sitcom mother (Allen) put on grey makeup to disguise her own transformation. It's a wonderful moment. Jeff Daniels (in a wonderfully understated performance somewhat reminiscent of his dual-reality role in Woody Allen's PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO) learns that everything need not always be the same, and in so doing, rediscovers his love for painting and art.

Where the film transcends its "high concept" theme and becomes more interesting, and perhaps more important, than it has any right to be, is in its portrayal of sexuality, particularly female sexuality, as the primary trigger of change, and a force greeted with fear and loathing by those opposed to change. Jennifer/Mary Sue's seduction of the school basketball star triggers an outbreak of sexual activity at the local lover's lane, and little by little, those who partake begin to appear in color. Interestingly enough, Jennifer/Mary Sue herself remains in black-and-white, indicating that it is the change that triggers the colors, not the sexuality itself.

The second hour descends a bit into heavy-handedness, as the newly-colorized (but still uniformly Caucasian) people are dubbed "coloreds" and discriminated against; books they read that expand their horizons are burned by angry citizens (almost entirely males and elderly women), and a courtroom scene in which David/Bud sings the praises of change. However, since David/Bud seems to genuinely like the sterile perfection of the original (in which he is a hero rather than a geek), this seems somewhat out of character. I didn't entirely buy that idea that he learns to appreciate his own world as he verbally sells it to his new 1950s friends.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Maguire is sweet, earnest and appealing, Witherspoon shows great comic timing, and Macy is delightfully deadpan. Also of note is the final performance of the late J.T. Walsh, as mayor/judge/general town poobah and leading opponent of change, "Big Bob."

If the ending isn't entirely convincing, it doesn't detract from a film that is far more profound than its light comic touch would indicate.

- Jill Cozzi

 


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