Review by Chris A. Bolton, 24FramesPerSecond.com
For all of the fantasy elements Hollywood blithely throws at us under the illusion of presenting a trumped-up "reality" (i.e. buff action-hero cops, hot'n sexy single mothers, etc.), there are very few unrepentant film fantasies. Most modern films contain fantastic elements grounded by realistic surroundings, explaining every fantastical development logically, if not always credibly. Even classic fantasies like The Wizard of Oz apologize at the end by having Dorothy awaken to find it was only a dream. Pleasantville is the first fantasy I can recall in years that makes no excuses about its unreality. It is a parable that could not possibly exist and doesn't bother to try convincing us it does. It's fanciful and whimsical and entirely fictional, and yet it has more insight than any dozen "realistic" Hollywood message dramas.
The story centers on a fictional TV sitcom from the '50s called "Pleasantville," inspired by the likes of "Ozzie & Harriet" and "Leave It To Beaver." Everyone is white-bread and over-eager, the parents sleep in separate beds, and the worst problem a teenage boy has to deal with is debating whether or not he's ready to hold his steady girlfriend's hand. Juxtaposed against "Nick At Night"-type commercials for an upcoming "Pleasantville" TV marathon are scenes of twins David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), two modern teenagers dealing with a completely different world. David is isolated from his peers and himself, as demonstrated in a terrific trick scene where he seems to be—but isn't quite—asking a popular girl out. Jennifer is probably more "popular," though certainly not in a positive way: she smokes and sleeps around and makes dates with good-looking hunks who wouldn't know what to do with an original idea if they had one.
Then a mysterious repairman (Don Knotts) appears at David and Jennifer's door the night their barely attentive single mother has left for the weekend. He quizzes David about details of the "Pleasantville" TV show, and is amazed that this modern teenager is so completely immersed in an antiquated series almost fifty years old. As a sort of reward, he gives them a special remote control. When they fight over it (David wants to watch "Pleasantville" and Jennifer wants to watch MTV with her hunk), the two are transported inside the black-and-white world of "Pleasantville," where they replace the series' teenage siblings, Bud and Mary Sue Parker.
Jennifer/Mary Sue is outraged to be here, but for reasons that attempt to cover his own enthusiasm, David/Bud insists that they play along and not disturb this pristine world. And a truly alien world it is. In Pleasantville, the basketball team never misses a shot, the fire department actually rescues kittens from trees, and the twins' surrogate parents, George (William H. Macy) and Betty (Joan Allen) are waiting at the breakfast table with piles of pancakes, waffles, eggs, and ham steaks. "You're not leaving this house without a hot meal in you," Betty tells a horrified Jennifer/Mary Sue.
Eventually it becomes clear that David/Bud is enraptured by the quaint, innocent setting of Pleasantville and embraces its old-fashioned family values. Jennifer/Mary Sue is initially repulsed, but soon comes to realize she can take advantage of the town's innocence. Before long her amorous actions have set change into motion. The black-and-white people of Pleasantville begin to change into colors as they are introduced to passion and excitement. It starts with teenagers discovering sex at the lover's lane and spreads to Betty Parker (a dutiful housewife who finally gets to learn about herself and get in touch with her own feelings, in a creative way) and the owner of the local soda shop, Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels), who fills his bland little shop with brilliant color paintings. Before long, the old guard of Pleasantville, including George and the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, Big Bob (the late, great J.T. Walsh), band together to resist the horrifying new elements that are changing their beloved, stagnant world.
It doesn't take much to interpret all of this as a parable for the "family values" debate. The quaint world of Pleasantville never actually existed even in the '50s, but somehow that decade gets this sort of rosey gloss from certain elements who resent the strides modern society has made in women's liberation, civil rights, art, and attitudes toward sexuality.
Initially I was concerned about this attitude. I foresaw the lesson being that the present-day world is enlightened and Pleasantville would be redeemed by a modern makeover. This is most troubling in the portrayal of Jennifer, a promiscuous young woman lacking in self-esteem or any sort of insight into anything more important than shopping at the mall. Jennifer is an example of how the sexual revolution has done as much to damage the image and behavior of young women as it has made strides in their social liberation. Some women can take it; others have no idea of themselves as anything more than a vessel for male sexual gratification. Fortunately, writer/director Gary Ross is much smarter than that. Making his feature directorial debut after co-writing Big and Dave, Ross seems to know exactly what the audience expects and takes us for an unpredictable ride. There are archetypal elements of plot that need to be addressed, of course, but the spirit of the film is passionate and resistant to easy formulas.
Jennifer/Mary Sue, for instance, starts to wonder why other teenagers having sex are turning color while she's had twice as many sexual conquests but remains black-and-white. "Maybe it's not the sex," David/Bud suggests. Jennifer/Mary Sue doesn't begin to turn color—i.e. find enlightenment—until she discovers her own, true passion and forsakes that which actually gives her very little pleasure. Meanwhile, David/Bud's real-world inhibitions and apathy fall to the wayside as he discovers he can actually be loved by someone else, and that he can care about a world and the people in it.
Pleasantville isn't the sort of fish-out-of-water comedy in which a modern sensibility redeems the outdated old folks. Rather, Ross has his characters meet in the middle. The repression and blandness of the '50s sitcom world is given new vigor by the liberation of the '90s, while the sense of community, belonging, and the importance of the individual that pervades the sitcom world leads the modern characters to a very tough decision. I was especially surprised by the ending of the film, which is not at all easy and tidy, but rather very, very messy.
The performances are all first-rate, which is to be expected with terrific actors like Macy, Walsh, Daniels, and Allen in the cast. I was impressed by Maguire, whose only other work I've seen was in The Ice Storm, and by Witherspoon, who has hardly been in a memorable role before this one. The production design and special effects integrating color and black-and-white are gorgeous and exquisite. The screenplay is witty and clever without being precious or undermining the inherent dramatic elements of this story.
But most surprising of all is the sure-handed direction from Ross. The graveyard of terrible recent movies is littered with the failed attempts of high-paid screenwriters making directorial debuts: Amy Holden Jones (The Rich Man's Wife), Wesley Strick (The Tie That Binds), and David Koepp (The Trigger Effect), to name but a few. It's gotten to the point that I try to avoid these films as much as possible, but Ross has a natural directorial instinct for interesting shots that serve the film and not just the screenplay. It certainly helps that this is the sharpest screenplay he's written, even better than Big or Dave.
I thought I knew what how the trip through Pleasantville would turn out, but I was wrong. The film contains elements of fun and discovery, and certainly satire, but is more in the tradition of the Brothers Grimm or Aesop's Fables, where the lesson learned is not always a happy one—but most be learned nonetheless. I was immersed in this film and stayed riveted until the moment the credits began to roll. Hollywood cannot boast such absorbing fantasies very often, and that makes Pleasantville a truly special experience.