Directed by Gary Ross
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels, William H. Macy, J.T. Walsh, Don Knotts, Marley Shelton.
1998 122 minutes
Rated: (for profanity and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 24, 1998.
After fighting for the remote control that they have just received from a mysterious television repairman (Don Knotts), teenage siblings, David (Tobey Maguire), and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), are transported into the t.v. set and find themselves on the black-and-white 50's sitcom, "Pleasantville," taking over the places of the children in the show, Bud and Mary Sue. Their parents in the show are, as are the rest of the parents, the type that you might see on "Father Knows Best," or "Leave It to Beaver," with a housewife (Joan Allen) who does all of the cooking and cleaning, and a husband (William H. Macy) who goes to work during the day, only to return by saying, "Honey, I'm home," and to find his dinner waiting for him in the kitchen. Since David is a fan of the show, he can always tell which episode is occurring at a certain time, and urges Jennifer not to do anything that would disrupt their routine. Soon, however, Jennifer has had sex with one of the boys from school, a thing that no one in the show has previously even known about, and as many of the people in Pleasantville become open to new, fresh ideas, parts of the fictional world begin to subtly turn to real colors, including the people themselves.
If there was one word to describe Gary Ross' new fantasy, "Pleasantville," it would be the word, magical, and the less said about the story, the better. The film is a wholeheartedly original motion pcture, visually beautiful, and, while it starts off as a sort of "fish-out-of-water" story, it quickly turns it something far more meaningful and mature than expected. Although basically a comedy, "Pleasantville" also contains many serious moments, including one scene in which David helps his mother, played splendidly by Allen, who has turned to real colors, and frightened at the prejudices of the other people in the town, to cover up her face with gray makeup.
One of the big treats of "Pleasantville" is the way that the film very gradually begins to transform things into technicolor. At first, it may just be small things in the background, such as a clock or a flower, and it is quite entertaining picking out all of the delicate changes. As far as I can tell, "Pleasantville" is the first film to actually blend black-and-white and color together in the same frame, and it is never less than convincing and always gorgeous and strangely poetic to look at. Credit certainly must go to production designer Jeannine Oppewall and cinematographer John Lindley, for creating a whole new, unexpected world.
"Pleasantville" easily could have been the fantasy of this generation, just like "The Wizard of Oz," but there are a few minor problems that ultimately hold it back from being a downright great film. One problem is the Don Knotts character, who has no point in the story but to give the kids the remote so they would be put inside "Pleasantville." We never really get to know who he is, or what his goal was. Witherspoon, who has proven herself a fine actress, and doesn't disappoint here, is nonetheless underused, and seems to all but disappear from the middle section of the picture. And my last minor quibble is that one of the climactic scenes set in the courtroom owes more than a little to, "To Kill a Mockingbird," right down to the way the building looks.
These slight distractions take very little away from "Pleasantville," however, because as previously mentioned, the film is a magical experience. It contains enchanting, one-of-a-kind images, a memorable, Oscar-worthy music score by Randy Newman, and then, and this is the big surprise for a mainstream film, it actually adds profundity and realism to what, on the surface, might appear to be merely a 50's sitcom satire.
©1998 by Dustin Putman