Pleasantville (1998)

reviewed by
Edward Johnson-Ott

Pleasantville (1998) Tobey Maguire, Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, J.T. Walsh, Reese Witherspoon, Don Knotts, Paul Walker, Marley Shelton, Jane Kaczmarek. Music by Randy Newman. Produced by Jon Kilik, Robert J. Degus, Steven Soderbergh, Gary Ross. Written and Directed by Gary Ross. 124 minutes PG-13, 5 stars (out of five stars)

Review by Ed Johnson-Ott, NUVO Newsweekly Archive reviews at To receive reviews by e-mail at no charge, send subscription requests to

Ambitious, ingenious and visually breathtaking, "Pleasantville" is a rarity in contemporary filmmaking; a fully-realized vision that succeeds on multiple levels. Writer and director Gary Ross has crafted a wondrous experience that satisfies as a comedy, a fantasy, a drama and a parable. Movies don't get much better than this.

Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon play disaffected '90s teenagers magically whisked into "Pleasantville," a black and white '50s TV sitcom reminiscent of "Father Knows Best." Like Connecticut Yankees in Robert Young's Court, their presence has drastic effects on this safe, sanitized community, where books are blank, toilets don't exist and even married couples sleep in separate beds.

As the citizens of Pleasantville discover art, sex and the concept of nonconformity, bursts of color appear in their monochromatic world. In short order, color begins to spread like a virus through the town, and while many are enthralled by the changes, others are angered by what they perceive as a threat to their way of life. Soon, the patriarchal power structure organizes, determined to rid Pleasantville of the curse of color.

First-time director Gary Ross, who wrote "Big" and "Dave," handles this challenging material with a sure, steady hand. Easing into the story with reassuring comedy, he maintains a gentle tone even as the film graduates into drama, addressing serious issues without ever becoming ponderous. Legendary director Frank Capra would surely be delighted to see the proud tradition of "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" carried on in a film of this caliber.

"Pleasantville" is a deeply humane, spiritual film with an uplifting message that couldn't have come at a better time. These are dark days for our society. Recently, we've seen a man dragged behind a truck because of the color of his skin and a college student savagely beaten and left on a fence to die because of his sexual orientation. Conservative groups brandish the Bible like a weapon, using the mask of "family values" in a vain attempt to disguise their message of hate.

The more fearful citizens of Pleasantville exhibit the same behavior. As an increasing percentage of the populace changes from black and white to color, the result of embracing freedom and diversity to realize their potential, conservatives put signs in their windows reading "No Coloreds Allowed." When housewife Joan Allen embraces her sexuality and sees her pallid skin change to rich color, she panics. Fearing the wrath of her family and community, she tries to go "back in the closet" by covering her skin with monochrome makeup. Thankfully, she learns that once you've realized your God-given nature, it's wrong to live a lie.

The symbolism and messages in "Pleasantville" aren't subtle: Ross chose not to work that way. "This movie is about the fact that personal repression gives rise to larger political oppression," he said in an interview. "That when we're afraid of certain things in ourselves or we're afraid of change, we project those fears on to other things, and a lot of very ugly social situations can develop."

If this all sounds awfully heavy, rest assured that the film is far from a two hour exercise in tubthumbing. Ross imbues the film with a lilting, lyrical feel, many humorous and touching moments, and absolutely remarkable visuals. From the image of a single red rose set against a black and white background to the visage of a gray-scale youth gazing at a gloriously colored city park, "Pleasantville" is flat-out dazzling to behold.

The cast is wonderful as well. Tobey Maguire anchors the film as a detached, ironic contemporary youth who initially tries to preserve the integrity of Pleasantville, only to learn that nostalgia is not all it's cracked up to be. Reese Witherspoon is strong as his sister, a young woman whose attempts to build a life out of fashion, sexual encounters and glib nihilism leave her yearning for self-esteem and genuine emotional contact.

Playing the citizens of Pleasantville, J.T. Walsh (in his final performance) and William H. Macy are strong as men traumatized by the changes to their well-ordered lives, and Jeff Daniels stands out as a gentle soul with the spirit of an artist buried beneath his passive demeanor. Out of all the actors, Joan Allen is perhaps the most memorable in a deliciously nuanced turn as the archetypal homemaker who blossoms into passionate individuality.

Beyond its stunning visuals and important messages, "Pleasantville" shines as a work of sheer joy, without a hint of the cynicism that plagues modern films and our world in general. Gary Ross clearly believes that humanity can grow past its fears to become a truly multi-colored society where diversity is embraced and individuality can flourish. As I watch the grim forces determined to impose their fascistic, black and white "family values" agenda onto our culture, I pray that he is right.

 1998 Ed Johnson-Ott 

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