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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

13 Responses

  1. I love this movie for all of the reasons you mention. In addition to being very smart commentary on social progress, it’s also a damn fine story. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also gorgeous to look at throughout. And the ending is truly a thing of beauty.

  2. Loved this movie! So creative stylistically and blessed with an intelligent albeit maybe not so subtle social commentary. Really underrated film that has sort of gone under the radar.

  3. Never seen it. Sounds good. Great review.

    • @ Movie guy — It rivals “The Man Who Wasn’t There” in terms of cinematography, with that added element of technicolor that looks twice as brilliant matched with black, white and gray tones.

      @ Castor — The more I watch “Pleasantville,” the more the sheer inventiveness of the storyline impresses me. It’s really unlike anything else I’ve seen — just totally original and ambitious, but somehow Ross pulls it all together beautifully.

      @ Sam — Definitely give this one a watch. Even though it was made in the late ’90s, it doesn’t feel dated to me.

  4. I was not mature enough to appreciate this film when it was first in theatres. But watching it since then reminds me basically of what you said. It’s a pretty great film.

  5. PLEASANTVILLE is one of my all time favourite films. I’m still amazed how the allegorical element sneaks up on you every time. It’s allusions to racism seem obvious in retrospect, but it’s so clever and entertaining that it’s only when the shop-keeper literally puts the “no coloreds” sign in the window that you realise what the film has been doing.

    The performances are all great (who doesn’t love William H. Macy). And nothing beats that scene in the classroom – the look of total bewilderment on the teachers face when asked what’s outside of the town.

    Great review as always!

  6. I read an article recently about the movie that centered around this quote: “I’d rather be complete than be good.” I just thought that was such an interesting way to interpret the movie – although you do a mighty fine job yourself! The only thing I don’t like about this movie is how creepy Don Knotts is. But that’s just a minor thing.

    • @ Blake — I think I missed the appeal of this when it first came out, since I was just 17. It’s one of those movies you have to see again at different points in life, I think.

      @ Tom — My favorite part is David helping Betty cover her skin with gray makeup. Emotionally it’s such a rich scene, but from a visual standpoint it’s also just so darn pretty.

      @ Marshall — That is an interesting interpretation, though I’d say “Pleasantville” is both good and complete. The ending is somewhat strange, though. It has an ethereal quality that goes well with Fiona Apple’s cover of “Across the Universe.”

      • Apologies … I meant that quote is in regards to the characters of “Pleasantville,” not the movie. They find that in their society, they would rather be complete and know their sexual desires than be “good” in the narrow eyes of society.

        An interesting complement to this movie is the play/musical “Spring Awakening.” Not nearly as fun or funny as this, but covering much of the same thematic ground – I highly recommend it if you ever get the chance to experience it on stage or on a page.

  7. For all of its admittedly unsubtle race commentary, I always thought of this as a note on the ability of narrative forms– be they literature or media– to transport audiences into their fictional worlds. I also grant that this isn’t especially subtle, either, but Pleasantville to me is largely about how we choose to interpret the settings, surroundings, and characters of the stories we consume, and the power that the viewer actually has over the movies, TV programs, and books that they watch and read. The segregation elements are likely more the intent here, though.

  8. I really liked this movie! I think it is in my DVD collection stored away somewhere!

    This could easily make my Tuesday’s Overlooked Films piece (in fact I think I will link to it next week).

    • I definitely think “Pleasantville” has been largely overlooked, so it sounds like it would be a perfect pick for Overlooked Films.

  9. […] give a mention: Last week while I was making my rounds in the film blogo-sphere I visited M. Carter at the Movies (LINK UPDATED) where they have reviewed a film that I think is worth a look at. I too is a film […]

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