Review: “Pleasantville” (1998)

Humankind has an annoying tendency, on occasion, to regard the past with a sense of reverence. The 1950s, with all its poodle skirts and Buddy Holly toe-tappers, would seem innocent enough to deserve some nostalgia. But director Gary Ross is not interested in nostalgia for its own sake. So Ross’ stunningly lensed and frequently daring “Pleasantville”  is no love letter to this bygone time of dinner on the table at 5 p.m. “Pleasantville” is more a case for the 1990s as progress, a time when the world became much larger than Main Street, U.S.A.

If “Pleasantville” argues that the ’90s, for all the problems, point to improvement, then David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are the poster children. Ross’ extraordinarily creative script takes these two modern teens and drops them — through a time travel incident involving Don Knotts as an odd TV repairman — in an episode of David’s favorite black-and-white ’50s sitcom, “Pleasantville.” It’s a refreshing take on the fish-out-of-water scenario, since David and Jennifer aren’t just out of their element, they’re out of their era. The siblings find themselves in a very foreign world, where they are known as Bud and Mary Sue, the straight-laced children of Pleasantville, Ill., residents George (William H. Macy) and Betty Parker (Joan Allen). David urges Jennifer to play along to keep Pleasantville’s universe in kilter, but playing by ’50’s rules proves harder than they imagined.

The real fun and substance of “Pleasantville” comes from David and Jennifer’s upheaval of Pleasantville. Ross uses the characters to poke fun at what he perceives as the naiveté of the 1958 suburban life. Jennifer, not the least bit demure, takes studly Skip (Paul Walker) for a backseat tumble at Lover’s Lane and gives the timid, unhappy Betty a lesson in the joys of masturbation. David encourages his boss at the soda shop, Bill (Jeff Daniels), to explore his love of painting and tells his fellow students about life outside of Pleasantville. He has them devouring “scandalous” books like “Huckleberry Finn” and “Catcher in the Rye” in no time. As more Pleasantville’s citizens open their minds, things turn technicolor — literally. The juxtaposition of black-and-white and color makes for some gorgeous scenery, but it infuriates Mayor Bob (J.T. Walsh). He forms a posse of like-minded traditionalists, including George, who’s reeling from his wife’s distant behavior, and declares Pleasantville’s answer to marshal law. The town’s “coloreds” become outcasts. Individuality is squashed, not with outright violence, but with a more underhanded Cold War approach.

Once techicolor invades this mild world of pleasantness, “Pleasantville” moves from comedy to commentary. The town’s separation of “coloreds” and those left in black-and-white is a clear allusion to the Civil Rights Movement. On another level, the struggle between the two groups represents the clash of ignorance and knowledge, or the receptiveness to new ideas. What’s truly impressive is the way Ross manages to juggle all these elements so well: the light-hearted comedy, the moving drama (Allen and Daniels shine brightest in this area), the pointed social commentary. All the elements come together brilliantly, especially in David and Bill’s climactic courtroom scene. These elements are helped along by the great set design and John Lindley’s superb cinematography. Apart from David’s comical meta-asides (“Oh my God … are we in that episode?” he muses), there’s scarcely a moment where “Pleasantville” doesn’t feel like an authentic window into the world in 1958. Ross has recreated an era long gone in amazing detail.

The actors take equal care in their performances. Maguire hits all the right notes as David, a high school nobody back home who seizes an opportunity to reinvent himself. Walsh possesses a singular gift for radiating quiet menace. And actors don’t come more talented and nuanced that Allen, Macy or Daniels. Macy and Daniels milk their lines for maximum comedy, but they don’t shy away from drama. The simmering sexual tension between Allen and Daniels is a nice counterpoint to Macy’s cluelessness; George has no idea why his wife would be discontent with sleeping in separate beds. Allen, though not the central focus of “Pleasantville,” commands the most attention. Betty’s slow, deliberate transformation from smiling unhappiness to freedom is a great triumph in a move filled with them.   

Grade: A

My thought on today

No. 43: “Boogie Nights” (1997)

“You know, I’m gonna be a great big, bright shining star.” ~~Dirk Diggler

Watch enough Paul Thomas Anderson films — which won’t take a full day, considering he’s only made five major motion pictures — and a trademark starts to emerge. It’s not the long shots (he’s wonderful with those) or the use of the iris in/out technique (that too). What strikes us, and quite forcefully, is Anderson’s repeated focus on warped, unconventional family dynamics. “Punch Drunk Love” had Barry and his seven wretched sisters; “Magnolia,” the twin stories of Jimmy Gator and Earl Partridge, who slowly poisoned their marriages, their children and themselves. “Boogie Nights” may beat them both, though, in terms of questionable family relationships for its emphasis on a clan of pornographers — actors, directors, producers — who cling to each other out of emotional necessity. Their real families won’t have them; no one else will, either, and so they love the ones they’re with.

This unorthodox sense of togetherness smudges the line between parental love and sexual love, especially in the case of porn stars Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore). Freud could have a field day with the peculiar yet loving relationship these two people have. Unable to see her son, Amber has a hole in her heart she needs to fill with something. Cocaine passes the time, but she needs to be needed. And Dirk, a clueless kid determined to escape his own abusive mother, needs a surrogate.These two are a match made in heaven and also hell — they nurture each other, they fill gaps, but they also have a codependent relationship that’s headed nowhere good. More stable is Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds, displaying actual depth and empathy), the porn director with a conscience who discovers Dirk bussing tables at a nightclub. “I got a feeling that behind those jeans is something wonderful just waiting to get out,” Jack observes, and he’s not being crude. Jack Horner is a man with an eye for untapped potential. He’s also a man who wants to help a struggling, uncertain high school dropout make something of himself. He adopts a fatherly attitude toward Dirk, who finds makeshift siblings in fellow actors Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly, all childlike innocence) and Rollergirl (Heather Graham).

Remaining characters trickle in and out much like kooky relatives at a family reunion: Maurice Rodriguez (Luis Guzmán), a nightclub owner/Don Juan in his own mind; Colonel James (Robert Ridgely), Jack’s financial backer with a disturbing, illegal secret; and gay boom operator Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman, agonizingly awkward), besotted with Dirk. There’s assistant director Little Bill (William H. Macy, brilliant as usual), whose reaction to his porn star wife’s (Nina Hartley) infidelity is a game-changer in “Boogie Nights.” Also intriguing is Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), who wants to give up his unfulfilling life of sex on camera, meet his soulmate and open a discount electronics store. Little details like that are the mark of a gifted filmmaker. And one thing Anderson, for all his skills behind the camera, never skimps on is the depth of his characters. He can draw impressive performances from actors — Graham, Reynolds and pre-“Departed” Wahlberg — not known for giving them. Even the characters we get fleeting glimpses of, like Thomas Jane’s arrogant Todd, Philip Baker Hall’s visionless financier Floyd or Alfred Molina’s whacked-out drug dealer, leave indelible impressions. Anderson writes “Boogie Nights” so that every person is concealing a story, and we get just enough of a taste of those stories to want more. Anderson backlights the characters’ tensions with his single takes (he holds when other directors would cave) and exquisite soundtrack choices, proving himself as good at illustrating eras and emotions with songs as Scorsese.

In the long list of thingsAnderson does well, there’s something else to tick off: merging multiple storylines into a satisfying conclusion. His endings are poetry, and the final minutes of “Boogie Nights” — shocking for MPAA in the ’90s, they prompted Reynolds to fire his agent and punch Anderson on set — is no exception. Anderson feels for his characters, and he gives them the kind of bittersweet adieus that sit with us indefinitely. It’s not what we expect, but it’s exactly what we need.

No. 42: “Magnolia” (1999)

“I’ll tell you everything, and you tell me everything, and maybe we can get through all the piss and shit and lies that kill other people.”
~~Claudia Wilson Gator

Epic in length, ambition and raw acting talent, “Magnolia” is not an easy film to break down. This motion picture defies quick summary, and that’s not because of a convoluted plot or characters with mystifying or unknowable motivations. Stripped of the gut-churning, elegaic soundtrack (including Aimee Mann’s devastating, Oscar-nominated “Save Me”), “Magnolia” is film about the most mundane of things: people interacting with other people. Under Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction, though, something so ordinary becomes extraordinary. Where other directors might see banality, he sees a life-affirming symphony of emotion.

In making “Magnolia,” Anderson had a rare opportunity for creative control. He decided to seize that opportunity — a wise move considering that a motion picture this theatrical about plain people might not have gotten made any other way. Making something like “Magnolia” involves a gigantic leap of faith that places an equally gigantic amount of trust in viewers. Could they see beauty in two lonely ne’er-do-wells (John C. Reilly, Melora Walters) bonding over a terrible cup of coffee? Or be moved to tears by the plight of a loser (William H. Macy) who lives so deep in the past he can’t see what’s ahead of him? It’s a risk few directors would take; that’s not Anderon’s way, however, and thank God for that. Anyone with a touch of patience and a willingness to accept coincidences will find much to love about “Magnolia,” which at its core is a meditation on the emotions we feel every day, many times a day: anger, sadness, pain, hope, lust, love, betrayal, jealousy and so much more. It is one of the best films ever made about the human condition.

One of the elements to love about “Magnolia” — not shocking given Anderson’s ability to assemble winning ensemble casts — is the performances. Anderson does not write any part, down to a dying man’s nurse, as one-dimensional. There are unfathomable depths to every character, and every actor finds those depths. Because “Magnolia” relies on the everyone-is-connected-somehow theme, there are no true main characters and no stories that preside over all others. Dying patriarchs Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) and Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), however, do stand at the middle. Earl pleads with his caretaker Phil (Hoffman) to find Frank (Tom Cruise, who hits a career high), the son Earl abandoned years ago. Frank, a manipulative slimeball who’s made a career of selling his womanizing strategies to regular guys, wants nothing to do with Earl. He also wants nothing to do with Earl’s trophy wife Linda (a wrenching Julianne Moore), who sublimates her guilt with any sedative she can find. Jimmy’s life is approaching its expiration date, and he cannot reconcile with his daughter Claudia (Melora Walters), a cokehead. An inept, kind-hearted cop named Jim (John C. Reilly, a sweetly floundering Everyman) falls for Claudia when her neighbors file a noise complaint against her. Claudia’s father is on the verge of losing the thing that means most to him in the world: his successful game show “What Do Kids Know?” One of the young stars is Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), whose father is pushing the boy right up to the breaking point. Donnie Smith (Macy in top comic-tragic form), former child star of the show, watches Stanley with jealous, knowing eyes. Donnie understands the dangers of peaking so young, and his anguish is plaintive: “I do have love to give. I just don’t know where to put it.”

Macy touches on one of the more important prevailing themes — and a universal human problem — in “Magnolia” with these two sentences of dialogue. These people, all bumbling and stumbling through life, have emotions too big to stuff down. Mann’s aching, weary voice perfectly underscores this plight, and Anderson’s tracking shot in the quiz show sequence builds the tension to uncomfortable levels. Like the characters in “Magnolia,” we pray for sweet release. When release comes, we are not prepared and we do not understand. Maybe we don’t need to. Maybe this, Stanley would say, is something that happens.

No. 33: “Mystery Men” (1999)

“We’ve got a blind date with destiny, and it looks like she’s ordered the lobster.”
~~The Shoveller

Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear, comic actor supreme) cuts a dashing figure in his aerodynamic, sponsor patch-studded leather suit, and he’d be an outstanding superhero if not for one hiccup: He’s good. He’s so good, in fact, that he’s vanquished all the supervillains and plumb run himself out of a job. Now this blonde superstar with the blinding smile is reduced to taking the gigs his grumbling publicist (Ricky Jay) gets him, like busting up a robbery at an old folks’ home. Poor Captain Amazing learned too late that pride should go before job security in a fall.

Maybe there are people capable of resisting a superhero movie anchored by a flaming imbecile more concerned with keeping his image — Pepsi pulled its sponsorship! — than saving people. Not I. There’s something to this “we’re not your classic heroes” angle that reels me in, even if the story’s told only passably well. Kinka Usher’s “Mystery Men” vaults past “passable” in the first 15 minutes when the deliciously ee-viyill Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) emerges from his asylum stay ready to perpetrate some villainy. Rush is a marvel of a character actor, but as a supervillain? He’s even better. And because Casanova Frankenstein has twice the wit and triple the brains of his arch-nemesis (who doesn’t even know the plural of “nemesis”), it’s obvious that “Mystery Men” isn’t going to be an epic battle unless Captain Amazing gets some help. And he can’t afford to be picky.

Out from the crevices of Champion City (Gotham/N.Y.C. on acid) emerges a team of do-gooders painfully aware they are not an “elite cadre” of anything except Captain Amazing haters. That’s understandable; the man’s a limelight thief. The leader is Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller, aptly cast), who seems to think being irked and mixing metaphors — he is “a Pantera’s box you do not want to open” — make him a holy terror. His friends, the fork-flinging Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) and the Shoveller (William H. Macy), are less delusional; they see no reason to hire a publicist. “What is there to publicize? The fact that we get our butts kicked a lot?” Shoveller asks. Bent on 86ing Casanova, Mr. Furious enlists Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), only invisible when no one’s looking, to bring others out of hiding: The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), whose power comes from her murdered father’s skull encased in a bowling ball; The Spleen (Paul Reubens), cursed with the ability to produce killer farts; and The Sphynx (Wes Studi), theoretically able to halve guns with his mind but who mostly says things like “to learn my teachings, I must first teach you how to learn.” Together they must take on not only Casanova but his Disco Boys, led by Tony P. (Eddie Izzard, a scream), who summons up murderous rage on behalf of disco’s unpopularity. When that doesn’t fly, he uses flaming hairspray.

For a movie like “Mystery Men” to work, atmosphere, action and characters must have a happy marriage. The relationship couldn’t be more harmonious. The look of Champion City and the heroes screams “comic book movie,” with vivid landscapes, colors and costumes meant to elicit laughter more than anything else (The Sphinx’s headdress is … beyond words). The action sequences are played for chuckles, including the team’s vandalism of Casanova’s limo and a hysterical scene where the team’s “daring rescue” of Captain Amazing goes sour. Kudos to the casting director for assembling so many funny actors in one group. They hit every genre of humor: observational (Macy); sophomoric (Reubens, Mitchell); punny (Azaria); savage wit (Garofalo, Rush). Slapstick, corny jokes, putdowns — whatever tickles your funny bone, it’s here. Even Tom Waits is here, in a cameo as loner mad scientist Dr. Heller, inventor extraordinaire of non-lethal weaponry like — ha! — the Blamethrower.

Undoubtedly there are fans of Bob Burden’s “Flaming Carrot Comics” series, which “Mystery Men” loosely draws from, who will find the much-altered film an affront. I’ll speak as a fan of the series and this adaptation: Sometimes changes are an insult. When they preserve the madcap spirit of the source material? Consider them a compliment. Do it, or else Mr. Furious will go Pompeii on your butt.

No. 31: “Fargo” (1996)

“I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work there, Lou.” ~~Marge Gunderson

Writer Elbert Hubbard posited an interesting theory about the rather opposite problems of brilliance and nitwittedness: “Genius may have its limitations, but stupidity is not thus handicapped.” Watching Joel and Ethan Coen’s caper-gone-wrong/thriller/bloody comedy (blood-com?) “Fargo” is like watching Hubbard’s words come to life — funny, outlandish, kooky life. For “Fargo,” with few exceptions, is populated with the sort of numbskulls who could not find their nether regions with both hands and a miner’s helmet. Watching them try and fail makes for A-plus doofy comedy, but with a sinister and violent twist. 

Chief among these morons is Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy), a shady, incompetent Minneapolis car salesman who’s hemorrhaging cash. He hatches a plot to get his hands on some green that he’s certain is foolproof (uh oh). Mostly Jerry just needs money, but there’s a small part of him that craves excitement and power; he does, after all, live under his rich father-in-law’s (Harve Presnell) thumb. Macy’s stammering anxiety is a boon to “Fargo,” since nobody plays a loser who wants to be cool quite as adeptly as he does. Thus, Jerry hires two local thugs, Carl (the eminently watchable Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare, by turns comic and ungodly creepy), to kidnap his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrüd). In exchange, he’ll give these hoods a new car and half of the $80,000 ransom. But Jerry has plans for a double-cross of sorts that, according to Murphy’s Law and to Coen Law, he will not pull off. Guys who look and sound like William H. Macy never pull off such plots in movies.

There are two things that poor, dopey Jerry hasn’t counted on. First and foremost is that the criminal’s he has hired are about as gifted in the art of crime perpetration as, say, the Three Stooges on a bad day. Carl is jittery and absolutely incapable of keeping his cool. (The film’s best throwaway knee-slapper: Buscemi lets loose with “Whoa, daddy!” when Gaear suddenly shoots a trooper in Brainerd, Minn.) Gaear affects an ominous stare and rarely talks, which gives him an air — totally erroneous, of course — of competence. The second thing that knocks Jerry for a loop is Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, deserving of that Best Actress Oscar for her cheerful performance), Brainerd’s police chief. Although she, like everyone else in “Fargo,” sports that too-crazy-to-be-fake Minnesota dialect, saying things like “oh, yah” and “dontchaknow,” she’s no intellectual lightweight. Within minutes of finding the dead trooper in the snow, she’s accurately recreated the crime scene and starts the search for two criminals. McDormand, a veritable chameleon of an actress, plays up this rather astounding discrepancy to marvelous comic effect. The combination of the “aw, shucks” accent and her razor-sharp intellect is killer.

In Coen fashion, the events in “Fargo” unfold in such crazy ways that it’s best not to pull too hard on any one thread. This film, a mooshed-up concoction of genres, contains that principle that underlies so many of Joel and Ethan’s films: The more power we think we wield over any set of circumstances, the less we really do. In “Fargo” this idea is played for laughs dark- and light-hearted, with director Joel Coen leaning heavily upon his strange native tongue to provide a stark contrast to the chilly white landscape (ably provided by Roger Deakins). The characters, too, offer more than enough color, with Macy’s wannabe kingpin serving up chuckles galore with his ineptitude (i.e., he wants to KO the kidnapping but can’t because he doesn’t have another contact number for Carl). Buscemi, doing his best Buscemi impression, and Stormare, undervalued as a comic actor, are a bloody-fun Felix/Oscar team. They’re like the blockheads on “World’s Dumbest Criminals,” only more cartoonish. McDormand and John Carroll Lynch as Marge’s doting husband are the only characters approaching anything halfway near “nuanced,” and even they are drawn in bold strokes.

Still, if there were nuance, would we have zingers like “Say, Lou, didya hear the one about the guy who couldn’t afford personalized plates, so he went and changed his name to J3L2404?” Probably not, and that would be a tragedy. Darn tootin’.

Real-life movie moment

The movie: “Mystery Men” (1999); dir. by Kinka Usher; starring Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Janeane Garofalo, Hank Azaria, Paul Reubens, Geoffrey Rush, Greg Kinnear.

The moment: While shoveling piles of snow out of the driveway, I unearthed the frozen-solid corpse of a baby mouse. As I flung it off the shovel, it fell a few feet in front of the cat … who beat feet like Pete Doherty from a Narc-Anon meeting.

The correlation: I like to think that Dr. Heller would be proud of this, my discovery of the Deployment-Ready Mousenator, a new non-lethal weapon even simpler and more effective than, say, a Blamethrower.

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