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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

Review: “The Lookout” (2007)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes measure of a life lost to a brain injury in "The Lookout."

Joseph Gordon-Levitt measures life lost to a brain injury in "The Lookout."

Too often thrillers, in the hands of the wrong directors, make one of two mistakes. First, the pacing is too fast, the action too furious, which leaves the characters undeveloped and forces viewers to watch a series of things blow up. Or the pacing is too slow, the action too sporadic, which allows the characters to develop but leaves viewers too bored to care. “The Lookout,” a gripping character study directed impressively by Scott Frank, makes neither of these mistakes. The briskly-paced film, which features another stunning performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, starts off with a literal bang and never lets up … until the slightly deflated end.

The film’s opening credits give viewers a brief introduction to Chris Pratt (Gordon-Levitt), a hotshot college hockey star who’s got everything, including a gorgeous girlfriend (Laura Vandervoort). But a split-second error in judgment violently separates his life into “before” and “after”: Pratt crashes his convertible into a stalled farm combine. The resulting traumatic brain injury ends his career and his charmed existence.

Fast-forward four years. Pratt, now a night janitor at a no-name Kansas City bank, has no life to speak of: He has no girlfriend, his only friend is his sarcastic but kind-hearted blind roommate, Lewis (superbly acted by Jeff Daniels), and he has to record everything he does in a pocket notebook to make it through each day. His memory sequencing problems, mood swings and disinhibition make him reluctant to interact with anyone, including his well-to-do family. Into his gray world comes Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode), an ex-classmate who meets Pratt at a bar and tells fumbling loner he once looked up to him – he even dated Pratt’s older sister. The serpentine Spargo plays on Pratt’s insecurities and introduces him to “Luvlee Lemons,” an eager, attractive exotic dancer (Isla Fisher). It’s then Spargo reveals his ulterior motive: He wants Pratt to help him rob the bank whose floors he mops every night. Set all this intrigue against the blank, colorless, obliterating wintery Midwestern landscape — captured wonderfully by cinematographer Alar Kivilo — and “The Lookout” becomes as chilling as it is captivating.

What’s more intriguing is the way Frank, a screenwriter-turned-rookie-director, lets his characters take their time whittling away at our nerves. Goode banishes all memory of his icky-sweet role in “Chasing Liberty” here. His Gary possesses an oily, slightly menacing charm: He’s got a near-psychic (or sociopathic) ability to read people, discover their weaknesses and exploit them for personal gain. And what’s frightening is that he’s a downright likable fellow, the sort of chap who’d buy a round for strangers at the local dive bar. It’s a layered, commendable performance. Creepy, too, is Greg Dunham as Spargo’s right-hand man – he has but four lines of dialogue and exudes ungodly menace. The kind that, if you saw him in line in front of you at Bi-Lo, would make you pick up and move somewhere far away. Like Timbuktu. 

Daniels more than holds his own as Lewis, a wannabe restaurateur (he’s even picked out a name: “Lew’s Your Lunch”) who looks out for Pratt but never coddles him. His comic timing is dead-on (prepare to cackle when he tells Luvlee how he lost his sight), but better is his ability to show Lewis as a no-nonsense man who can peg a phony in a heartbeat. And Gordon-Levitt provides yet more reasons why he’s this generation’s finest working actor. His work here is unshowy and almost heartbreaking in its simplicity. As Pratt, he extracts maximum emotion from the character’s minimal dialogue (observe the wrenching clip where he tells his bewildered father “I can’t play chess anymore”). He looks and sounds like a man on the verge of collapsing beneath the weight of guilt and unfulfilled dreams.

Such commendable acting doesn’t disguise the frustrating flaws in “Lookout.” Fischer’s character does a disappearing act that’s puzzling. The robbery feels oddly out of place, since Frank spends so much time letting us know his characters. And the closing moments are too neat, too simple. Still, it’s not enough to ruin “The Lookout,” which is filled with characters who are anything but simple. 

Grade: B-