Pleasantville (1998)

reviewed by
Michael Redman

Are you settling for pleasant?
A Film Review By Michael Redman
Copyright 1998 By Michael Redman
*** (Out of ****)

"Pleasant". Now there's a word that's a double-edged sword. It used to mean an agreeable experience, but during the past couple of years I've been hearing it used differently. Occasionally when I've heard someone refer to a pleasant time, what they really mean is "uninteresting". Nothing unexpected. Safe.

Twin teens David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) live with their divorced mom and are inundated with the troubles of the nineties. There is no hope. There are no good jobs. AIDS is killing off the population. The ozone is being depleted. They both cope in a time-honored tradition: they ignore the problems. Jennifer is a party girl out for a good time. David retreats into the safe world of reruns of "Pleasantville", a fifties sitcom.

While arguing over television - David is set to watch a "Pleasantville" marathon, Jennifer has a hot date coming over to watch an MTV concert -- they break the remote control. Almost immediately a peculiar TV repairman (Don Knotts) shows up with a new super-powered remote. Instead of changing channels, it transports them into the program. You can almost hear eerie music and Rod Serling's voice, "There's a signpost up ahead. You are entering Pleasantville."

The television series is modeled after "The Donna Reed Show", "Father Knows Best" and other sanitized family comedies popular during the late fifties and early sixties. David and Jennifer find themselves taking the place of Bud and Mary Sue and living with TV parents George (William H. Macy) and Betty (Joan Allen). Having no choice, they pretend to belong.

Exploring the town, they discover that the black and white Pleasantville is a little odd. The weather forecast is always the same ("High of 72, low of 72, sunny skies"), there is no sex, nothing ever changes and the basketball team never misses a shot. Everything is just too darned nice.

Jennifer changes all that when she seduces her boyfriend at lover's lane. He doesn't have any idea what is going on. She reassures him with "Don't worry. It's supposed to do that." Driving home afterwards he notices something strange. A single rose in an otherwise monochromatic world is now a brilliant red.

Soon word of the new invention spreads like wildfire and the high school kids are going to it like crazed weasels. Colors start sprouting everywhere. Skin tones take on a rosy hue rather than pasty gray.

David brings a book of art prints to Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels), his boss at the malt shop. Johnson is blown away by the magnificence of the colors and is soon painting up a storm. There's no stopping now. A change is gonna come.

The film is filled with about a thousand metaphors. The most obvious mirrors the transformation of society in the fifties. Scarred by the depression, World War II and the threat of the bomb, Americans wanted to put themselves to sleep for a while. Television illustrated that desire. Father did know best. If there was a minor problem, it could be resolved by having a little talk with the Beaver.

Meanwhile out in the real world, this wasn't exactly the case. Racism, poverty and minority rights were looming on the horizon. Elvis and James Dean were lurking in the shadows, ready to wake the country up.

On a more personal level, the movie is about individual choices between mediocrity and adventure. At first the colorizing seems trite: get laid and everything looks better. Then we find that it's not sex that brightens up the world. It's passion for life.

Especially telling is Betty's experience. After Mary Sue explains to her "mom" what sex is, Betty experiences her first orgasm in a bathtub of warm water. A tree outside bursts into flames.

Although energized, Betty doesn't want anyone to know. She uses gray make-up to cover her now-pink skin. She knows what life is about but wants to "pass" as normal and lead the proverbial life of quiet desperation because it's safer. Later she can no longer resist. When told not to worry, her color will go away, she replies emphatically "I don't want it to go away."

The film made me squirm in my seat. The effects are handled beautifully with little patches of surreal color appearing in otherwise black and white scenes. The actors are all fine with Macy and Allen as particular stand-outs. But I kept waiting for the film to delve deeper into its theme. Unfortunately it never gets far below the surface.

The sequence of events is predicable. Kids, artists and women awaken to a new vivid reality and want to change things. The men in power are frightened and fight back.

Director and writer Gary Ross hits us over the head with heavy-handed messages. A store window sign reads "No Coloreds". There's a book-burning. The Chamber Of Commerce look like Nazis.

The adults of the fifties knew better than to believe the simplistic television shows. Their kids, on the other hand, may have fallen for them. The first generation growing up with the little glowing screen as a family member were indoctrinated by those programs. Even as adults, children of the fifties find it difficult to shake that early message that if you do things right, life will be easy.

Perhaps the best line in the film comes when David is consoling his real mother who is in tears. Echoing a statement that has come out of almost every Baby Boomer's mouth, she cries, "I'm 40. Life isn't supposed to be like this!"

"Mom," he explains, "there is no way life is _supposed_ to be."

(Michael Redman has written this column for over 23 years and is still searching for just the right mix of pleasant and that other stuff.)

[This appeared in the 11/5/98 "Bloomington Independent", Bloomington, Indiana. Michael Redman can be contacted at]

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