Pleasantville (1998)

reviewed by
"Average Joe" Barlow

                         A movie review by Joe Barlow
                             (c) Copyright 1998

STARRING: William H. Macy, Joan Allen, Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, Jeff Daniels, J.T. Walsh DIRECTOR: Gary Ross WRITER: Gary Ross RATED: PG-13 (for adult language and potentially disturbing YEAR: 1998 SEEN AT: Park Place 16, Morrisville NC

                   RATING: **** (out of a possible *****)

"Don't judge a book by its cover" has long been the motto of enlightened readers, who recognize that the story contained within the pages of a novel often bears no resemblance to the illustration on the front. I'd like to take this concept a step further and propose a new maxim for moviegoers: "Don't judge a film by its trailer."

Movie trailers (the "previews" which run before the main feature) have been used to promote upcoming films for almost as long as movies have been around. Their job is a simple one: entice the audience back to the theater at a future date, just as a book cover's job is to get you to buy the novel you're leafing through. But beware: like all forms of advertising, trailers often stretch the truth a bit. "Chasing Amy," a thought-provoking comedy/drama from director Kevin Smith, was depicted as a happy-go-lucky "bimbo" movie by Miramax's ads. And if I didn't see new movies as a matter of course, I would have skipped "Dance with Me," a warm, rich drama full of life and energy, because the trailer painted the film as two hours of Vanessa Williams shaking her tushie while Kris Kristofferson stood around, looking confused. The trailers for "The Truman Show" and "Ransom" are equally bad... though the ads for "Pleasantville" aren't far behind in terms of quality. (Joe's trivia question for the day: why are movie ads called "trailers" when they run BEFORE the movie? Answer given at the end of this review.)

As anyone who's seen the trailer can tell you, "Pleasantville" revolves around two modern teenagers, David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), who are magically transported into the fictional world of David's favorite television show, a Mayberry-esque community called Pleasantville. The year is 1958, the weather is always perfect, the universe (including David and Jennifer) is in black and white, Perry Como rules the airwaves, and dinner is always on the table when "Dad" (William H. Macy) gets home from work. David is delighted to be living in a simpler time, but wild-child Jennifer is aghast at the lack of sex, cigarettes and MTV... and decides to impart some of her worldly knowledge to the citizens of the town.

Jennifer's actions have unforeseen ramifications, however: as she (and David, to a lesser extent) encourage the other citizens of the town to change and evolve, the former idyllic paradise of Pleasantville is rocked to its foundation. The basketball team no longer wins every game. "Mom" suddenly doesn't feel like making dinner for "Dad" every night. Teenagers discover other things to do in the bushes besides hold hands. Rock and roll (gasp!) becomes the music of choice. And, for the first time ever, REAL COLOR begins to appear in the town... sporadically at first, but with increasing frequency, sending mayor Bob (the wonderful J.T. Walsh, who died during the making of the film) into a deep panic.

The trailer gives the impression that the movie is a screwball comedy, but make no mistake: "Pleasantville" is a drama, and a damn fine one at that. Sure, there are several funny moments: the Pleasantville Fire Department are experts at getting cats out of trees, but seem woefully unequipped to deal with an actual fire. "Mom" likes to make sure her kids start the day off with a REALLY BIG breakfast. And the scene in which Jennifer explains sex and the concept of masturbation to her ultra-straight "mother" is worth at least two-thirds of the ticket price by itself. But writer/director Gary Ross (the man who brought you "Big") also devotes a significant amount of the film's two-hour running time to more serious issues like racism, the loss of innocence, and finding the courage to follow your dreams despite what others think. None of these issues are particularly original, but the movie handles them so uniquely that they feel like a breath of fresh air. There are no guns, no car chases, no nudity... just a solid, entertaining story which flawlessly captures the feel of shows like "Andy Griffith" and "Leave it to Beaver," feeling like fifty-percent homage and fifty-percent satire (look for an amusing cameo by Andy Griffith's sidekick, Don "Barney Fife" Knotts). We also get plenty of great "fish out of water" comedy; in many ways, "Pleasantville" reminded me of a slightly more cerebral "Back to the Future." But the overall tone of the story is quite serious, and there's a good deal of both sadness and personal triumph contained in the movie.

I had pegged "What Dreams May Come" as a shoo-in for "Best Special Effects" or "Best Technical Innovation," but now I'm not so sure. "Pleasantville" is a visual marvel, seamlessly integrating color and black and white into the same shots for much of the film's duration. You have to see it to believe it, particularly the scene in which David and his gal-pal take a drive in the country. One of the nicest things about the movie's colors is that they all have a faded, neon-esque quality to them, akin to what you might find in a 1950s film. It's a perfect (and subtle) note of nostalgia.

This is the second movie this year (after "What Dreams May Come") to completely astonish me. Beautifully photographed, cleverly written, and always fascinating, "Pleasantville" should not be missed by anyone. Its ambiguous ending leaves a number of major questions unanswered (What was Don Knotts's character REALLY up to? How does Jennifer cope with the situation she finds herself in at the conclusion of the story?), but rather than being a detriment, I actually found that these unresolved issues gave me a lot of food for thought after the end credits began to roll... and that's something that all too few films do these days.

(Answer to the trivia question: in the '40s and '50s, advertisements for upcoming movies were typically shown AFTER the feature film, hence the term "trailer." The end credits for movies are much longer now than they were then, and most people leave before the credits are finished; as such, the ads are now shown before the main feature, although the term "trailer" is still used.)

Copyright (c)1998 by Joe Barlow. This review may not be reproduced without the written consent of the author.

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