Pleasantville (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Welcome to a world where Father knows best, where Mother cooks dinner, and where Sister and Brother's small missteps are treated with stern-but-kind lectures. It's a realm where everyone is nice to one another, where neighbors greet each other with a kind word, and where there's never any sign of lingering ill will. Obviously, this is not a real place, nor was it ever. In fact, it's the landscape of homogenous, black-and-white '50s television, the bastion of clean living and family values that has recently found a new generation of viewers through repeats on nostalgia cable channels like Nickelodeon.

There never was a program called Pleasantville, but the feel of this supposed old-time TV sitcom, as presented through the movie of the same name, so accurately captures the essence of '50s and '60s shows like Father Knows Best, My Three Sons, and The Donna Reed Show that it might as well occupy a slot in the "Nick at Night" lineup. With a gentle, affectionate mocking, director Gary Ross (making his directorial debut after writing Big and Dave) lampoons the quaintness of such TV programs by rigorously building a model that adheres to the formula, then slowly pulling it down over the course of two hours. Pleasantville is about the falseness of family values and the need of the individual to break through society's shield of conformity, but, most of all, it's about having fun at the expense of nostalgia.

Pleasantville opens in the comfortable familiarity of the '90s, with a common '90s family - David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are the twin children of a broken marriage. They live with a mother who's never around. One night, a mysterious television repair man (Don Knotts) shows up at the door and gives David a "special" remote control for the set. Later, as he's settling down to watch a 24 hour marathon of his favorite show, Pleasantville, he and his sister struggle over the remote. In the process, something very strange happens.

Suddenly, they are no longer in their home. In fact, they're no longer in color. They have entered the black-and-white world of '50s television, where the temperature is always 72 degrees, it never rains, profanity is never spoken, sex is taboo, there are no toilets, and words like "swell", "gee- whiz", and "keen" are part of the regular vocabulary. David is thrilled with the change in events. After all, Pleasantville is his favorite program. Jennifer, on the other hand, is horrified ("I'm pasty!" she screams upon seeing her gray complexion). She wants to go back immediately. She doesn't like the idea of having a perfect Dad in George (William H. Macy) and a perfect Mom in Betty (Joan Allen). But the gateway the two teens entered appears to be one-way, so they have to make do with their new world. Soon, however, David and Jennifer's "radical" ideals are bringing about changes in their environment. Perfection begins slipping away. Colors start to dot the black-and-white vistas. Jealousy, anger, and passion make appearances. The stale utopia of family values begins evolving.

The most stunning thing about Pleasantville is the film's look, which rivals that of the year's other two most visually-impressive productions, Dark City and What Dreams May Come. Color is used purposefully and impressively; it's hard to describe the impact of seeing one red rose amidst the black and white, or one monochromatic person in a sea of green grass. Ross has a reason for every change in hue, and the way he gradually evolves the film from pure black and white to a vibrant cacophony of colors is stirring. According to the press notes, this movie necessitated a whole new type of digital special effects. The first "full color" scene in Pleasantville (when the local kids are gathering in a park) is stunning. The movie needs to be seen more than once to absorb exactly how the color scheme has been constructed and executed.

On a thematic level, there are similarities between this film and The Truman Show, especially since both deal with reality vs. unreality and the importance of individual freedom. There are some differences, as well. Truman lives his life on television, and his actions affect those outside in the real world. David and Jennifer, on the other hand, also live their lives on television, but their actions affect only those inside the television world. It's a contemporary version of "Alice in Wonderland." Some might also notice similarities to Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, although this is essentially that approach in reverse. Here, it's real people traveling to an imaginary land, as opposed to the opposite, which occurs in Allen's movie.

The performances, while not Shakespearean, are all solid. Tobey Maguire (The Ice Storm) plays the kind of nice, likable boy whom the audience can identify with. He has an easy charm that's hard to dismiss. Reese Witherspoon (Twilight) gets to play the bad girl/good girl dual role, and is effective as both. William H. Macy is delightfully deadpan as the Father Knows Best who's frightened by the gradual transformation of his town. Also in the cast are Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels (as the proprietor of a soda shop who discovers a love of art), and the late J.T. Walsh (as an influential resident who opposes all change).

One of the things I liked best about Pleasantville is that, while it entertains with its quirky plot and stunning visuals, it also made me think. Too few movies manage to be both thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining. Pleasantville is a tour de force - it's a magical, modern-day fairy tale that invites us to explore who we are, and, like The Wizard of Oz and It's a Wonderful Life (heady company indeed), it trumpets the messages that the individual can make a difference, and that life in an alternate reality isn't necessarily better, just different. There's even room for a parable about racism ("No coloreds allowed"). Not only is Pleasantville a satire, a fantasy, and a visual marvel, but it's the best kind of feel-good movie.

Pleasantville (United States, 1998)

Director: Gary Ross
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, J.T. Walsh, Don Knotts, Marley Shelton, Jane Kaczmarek
Screenplay: Gary Ross
Cinematography: John Lindley
Music: Randy Newman
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
Ranked #4 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1998
Run Time: 1:56
U.S. Release Date: 1998-10-23
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1