Pleasantville (1998)

12 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Pleasantville” is a wonderful fantasy that is funny, great-looking, effective, well-acted, and very clever. First, it parodies those old TV black-and-white sitcoms, such as “Father Knows Best” and “Leave it to Beaver,” then it gets even better as it continues with its own sitcom plot and transforms into a strong story with a message of the power of change.

“Pleasantville” is the name of a TV black-and-white sitcom that features the same happy family we’ve seen in those other old sitcoms. They live in a small town called “Pleasantville.” Every day is the same—father comes home from work and yells in a pleasant tone, “Honey, I’m home!” Dinner is always on the table when Father comes home. (Making dinner is all Mother does, apparently.) The kids are pleasant too. In fact, everyone around them is pleasant and happy.

‘90s teenager David (Tobey Maguire) watches the reruns of “Pleasantville” and knows the show very well. We’d think that teenagers wouldn’t be interested in a show like that, but David feels left out of place in the 1990s and is more at home in the dream world of “Pleasantville.” His sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), however, is right at home here—she’s popular and has experience with sex. One night, while their mother squabbles with their divorced father, David and Jennifer fight over the remote control for the TV, which breaks. To the “rescue” is a mysterious, friendly TV repairman (Don Knotts), who supplies them with a new remote that will “put you through the screen.” They click it and find themselves magically transported into the black-and-white world of Pleasantville. Horrified by her complexion, Jennifer exclaims, “Look at me! I’m pasty!”

So far so good—the idea of having modern-day teenagers in a wholesome, pleasant 1950s TV world is clever. The script has fun with the kids learning about this new world—everyone sticks to the script; no one does anything different; every breakfast is no choice of pancakes, eggs, sausage, bacon, and a ham steak; the basketball team never misses a single shot, no matter where they aim; the books in the library are blank; nothing burns (the firemen only rescue cats from trees); everyone sleeps in twin beds; and there is nothing outside of Pleasantville (the school history class is only about Main Street and Elm Street and it begins where it ended again). No one has ever even heard of sex. David has seen all of the episodes, and so he knows this world well. Jennifer, on the other hand, finds this world mysterious and creepy. “We’re stuck in Nerdville!,“ she exclaims.

David and Jennifer attempt to cope with this world until the TV repairman feels pleasant enough to send them back home. Their names are now Bud and Mary Sue, their parents’ names are Betty and George Parker (Joan Allen and William H. Macy), and Bud works at the soda shop with Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels). But any change can alter this universe and who knows what’ll happen? And there are changes, starting when Jennifer goes on a date with the cool guy in school and gives him his first sexual experience. That’s when things start to spread around town, and things and people slowly turn into Technicolor.

I mentioned at the beginning of this review that “Pleasantville” is great-looking and I wasn’t exaggerating. Almost every shot from that point on is amazing to look at because writer/producer/director Gary Ross and his cinematographer John Lindley use special effects to show a black-and-white world mixed with characters in color. Some of them are still in black-and-white so they interact with the ones in color. How does it happen? As it turns out, whenever anyone in this pleasant world experiences any change of any kind, they turn color and the world becomes more like ours. One of the very best scenes involving this technique is the scene in which Betty, now turned color, is assisted by David to put grey makeup on her face. That scene is very well done. Also, there are bits where things in color are reflected onto the black-and-white characters, like a fire and the moonlight over a river. I was absolutely bedazzled by the effects in this film.

People are ready for change, and the more serious subject of the film are the questions they ask of who they are, what is their purpose, what will happen next—questions they’ve never thought about before. Mr. Johnson becomes interested in art and Betty does something for herself for once. But George is distraught—he’s used to getting dinner on the table when he comes home and distraught when he comes home and the house is empty. His routine is ruined. Finally, the Mayor (the late J.T. Walsh, in his last performance) announces to the remaining “true” citizens of Pleasantville, “Something is happening to our town.” He’s right.

Even David and Jennifer have the ability to change. For example, Jennifer is less interested in keeping her sexual reputation, and wondering what else there is to do. She even starts to take up reading (although, she has to wait until the words appear back in the library books).

The writing is fantastic. The directing is great. Credit Gary Ross for making this movie like it is. In lesser hands, the movie would’ve been as bland as the show it lampoons. Ross delivers the goods here.

The performances are terrific. Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon are good and convincing as the bewildered teenagers. William H. Macy is delightfully deadpan as the father, Joan Allen is fantastic as the mother, and Jeff Daniels is also good and funny as Mr. Johnson.

“Pleasantville” is also thought-provoking. It’s a magical piece of work that allows us to think about who we are and why we’re here. Can we, as individuals, make differences? I loved every moment of “Pleasantville”—it’s a clever, well-written, great-looking, solidly-acted, fantastic, satirical, fun feel-good movie. (Good Lord, is that enough adjectives?)

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