Pleasantville (1998)

reviewed by
Kleszczewski, Nicholas


Allow me to let you into a critic's secret. When a critic enjoys a film, and agrees with the films' underlying message, it becomes "the best film of the year", "a film of daring", a film of "great social merit." However, when a critic disagrees with the films' underlying message, it becomes "preachy", "heavy-handed", and its filmmakers are out to proselytize you.

Watching _Pleasantville_, I felt like I was being proselytized.

On the surface, it starts out daffy--two 90's kids being sucked into a 50's _Father Knows Best_ clone. But it changes tone midway through, and becomes a strong political tract. The pie is overstuffed; there are so many issues addressed that the film handles each of them half-heartedly.

This is a shame, because the cinematography, while not totally original (remember the old cherry 7 Up commercials?) is the first of its kind for a mainstream film. Gary Ross has the black & white mundanity touched by spurts of color, that slowly begin to dominate the landscape, the town, the people.

The big joke in _Pleasantville_ is that life is too perfect, too wholesome. When Jennifer and David (_Twilight_'s Reese Witherspoon and _Ice Storm_'s Tobey Macguire) are sucked in by a magical remote control device (given by a cheerfully off-beat Don Knotts cameo), they begin to introduce its residents to the modern zietgiest. It's not just the sexual revolution, but introduction to modern art, literature, and music. Somehow, the "perfect" residents of this imaginary world begin enjoying the "imperfect" standards and morales that modern society has taken for granted.

This is where the screenplay gets derailed. Before the color revolution, the basketball team gets every shot. When Pleasantville begins changing, and "reality" sets in, they begin playing less than stellar. Ha ha.

But "reality" never truly settles in. Premarital sex is introduced to teenagers, but there's no consequences: no unwanted pregnancies, no abortions, no sexually transmitted diseases. Rock is introduced, but the entire spectrum of modern rock, with all its morales, epithets, and parental warning stickers, is deeply ignored. The fifties' sitcom zietgiest has been replaced by the nineties' sitcom zietgiest, and not "reality."

Then the film moves in the direction against "book-burners" and "censorship advocates", and falls prey to its own propaganda. Sure, popular censored books-of-the-month are mentioned by name: _Catcher in the Rye_, _Huckleberry Finn_, _Lady Chatterley's Lover_. But where's the anti-Semetic _Mein Kampf_? Where's the truly offensive literature? How about the most banned book in the history of the world (which is, surprisingly, the Holy Bible)? The range of "free thinking" is shallow in ignoring the implications of its thought.

That's why the "censorship" debate is a false one. Sure, books were burned, and to this day, protests occur against offensive films and off-Broadway productions. BUT... in a society where freedom of expression is celebrated, then it should be expected that both ideas should be shared; that those offended have _as much right_ to voice their discomfort over the art as the artist himself. Those who burn the books OWN the books that were burnt. And if there were to be no censorship ever in the world, then every library, every bookstore, every videostore must contain every single book/art/video ever produced.

The mob's voice isn't censored in _Pleasantville_. Worse, they are charicatured. In the most surreal episode on _Pleasantville_, a nude painting of Joan Allen's Betty Parker is displayed on a malt-shop window. The townsfolk appear, they incite a riot, they trash the shop. But no dialogue is heard amidst the screaming. Possible statements would include: (1) A painting like this is better placed in a museum, not a malt shop; (2) Is this the right venue to broadcast to the world that Mrs. Parker is having an illicit affair with Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels); (3) The painting sucks. All three comments are legitimate statements, but are clouded by negative stereotypes that Gary Ross is more than happy to employ.

Gary Ross wants it both ways ideologically. In the opening moments, he humorously recognizes that society is on a downward slope, partially due to (must I say it?) _sin_. At the same juncture, he recognizes that because of the introduction of sin, life is more colorful, more daring, more free. This is most apparent in the not-so-subtle reference to David's eating of the forbidden fruit; later he is told that that one act is the reason for the downfall of his surroundings.

So, according to Gary Ross, life is deteriorating because of sin. But because of sin, life is freeing and exhilorating. Um... which is it?

Many moviegoers will want to ignore the theological undercurrent, and enjoy the film as entertainment. But that is just impossible. The story takes such an abrupt turn, that those expecting lighthearted, fun entertainment will become bored. And those looking for great satire end up with muddled messages. Perhaps the "happy ending" syndrome that affects most Hollywood productions has infected this as well.

That said, I am convinced that Joan Allen and William H. Macy give the best performances in their careers. They have impossible roles, of being etched as charicatured ideal parents, slowly discovering their individuality and sexuality. Allen's Betty Parker is the consummate homemaker who doesn't understand how unhappy and desperate she is. Macy's George is the opposite, who's love of having dinner ready at six is thrown into a tumult when that routine is upset. Because of them, the film has depth.

The other actors range from the standard (McGuire and Witherspoon) to the downright embarrassing (Daniels and J.T. Walsh). The film has some clever bits--the "No Coloreds" theme is an act of genius. But these are not enough to compensate for the film. All in all, _Pleasantville_ has laughs, a good tone, an ingenius concept, and some swell acting, soured by its own muddled, heavy-handed preaching. Too bad.

Now, which theatre owner will dare place this and _The Ice Storm_ on its double-bill?

Nick Scale (1 to 10): 6

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