Pleasantville (1998)

reviewed by
Zach McGhee


PLEASANTVILLE ***1/2* (3 and a half stars)

Reviewed by Zach McGhee
New Line Cinema, 1998
Director: Gary Ross

It was once said that ignorance is bliss. But how can you know bliss while ignorant? If you know not sorrow, you know not happiness, and vice versa. Such is the story of Pleasantville, a movie that's, quite frankly, inspired. The story of a 1950's town who's long lasting ignorance is challenged by modern day pop culture. The result of society's ultimate reaction to change. In today's world, we treat life loosely, with little value. Many consider material things to be more valuable than long term happiness, and simply obtain them to fill such holes of loss and greed. Others search for a happier time and place, and secretly hope for a return to our past. A time many call safer, better, more compassionate. Two such examples are modern day teens David (Tobey Maguire) and Jen (Reese Witherspoon). While David regularly drowns out his chaotic reality by immersing himself in reruns of the 1950's sit-com, Pleasantville, sister Jen lusts after cute boys as an admitted slut, climbing the social ladder through sex appeal. But, as Jen prepares for a date with MTV, and David for his much anticipated Pleasantville marathon, a doorbell is rung. A strange, unrequested TV repairman (Don Knotts) gives them a remote to replace their recently shattered one, after quickly quizzing David as to his knowledge of Pleasantville. After his departure, the two teens quarrel in an effort to win the remote. During the fight, a button is pushed, and the two are transported into the very fictional, very colorless world of Pleasantville. David, realizing that if they wish to get out soon they can't tinker with the mindset of pleasant-folk, urges Jen to do the same, and play along. While she starts out well, she quickly loses her balance, creating a domino effect of immense proportions, after introducing the element of sex to the quirky little town. Soon, the black and white universe begins to sprout color. Among the newly enlightened, the perfect Pleasantville mother, Betty (Joan Allen). But, it's not just about sex. Color can appear as a result of love, compassion, anger, or hate. It is about individuality, the free agency to choose between what is right and what is wrong, rather than stay confined to a "normal" and supposedly perfect world. We cannot become perfect by force, but must be allowed to make mistakes, and strive to ascertain it through correction and discipline. One of the film's few missteps hits when it fails to actively portray some of the unfavorable consequences that can result from such promiscuous behavior, as our society learned quickly after the sexual revolution of the 1960's. Though it maintains the absurdity of racism, another immorality. And while, throughout the film, Director Gary Ross may trip a bit with his "hang on a sec while I beat you over the head with my message so hard you won't soon forget it" strategy, such as the inclusion of signs stating "No Coloreds", it does work, something that is a credit to his history as a screenwriter. He's also assembled a very capable cast, including supporting actors Jeff Daniels (Dumb & Dumber), William H. Macy (Fargo), and the late J.T. Walsh (Breakdown, JFK), as well as the two leads and Allen (Face/Off). The cornerstone of the movie, the gradual inclusion of color as the town progresses, also has a wide range of integrity, and is constructed with great subtlety and detail. It alone is a good reason to see the film. The bottom line is that Pleasantville is a fantastic vision of our society as its progressed, and while many may still hope and remember the "good old days", we always must focus ahead on what will be, not what could've been.

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Reel Guide Online
Coming April 30th

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