Pleasantville (1998)

reviewed by
Jerry Saravia

The 1950's is a period of innocence that remains as much a memory as anyone who lived through it. The 1990's is a harmful, jaded era that does not accord to the values and customs of yesteryear. Fat chance that we'll ever adapt to such an innocence again. "Pleasantville" is one of the most ironic, original movies of the year that touches on what separates the 50's from the 90's. Is it moral decay, or is it something fundamentally deeper about ourselves?

The film begins with a television ad for the 50's show, "Pleasantville," with a spirit reminiscent of the nostalgic sitcoms shown on Nick at Nite. A smiling David (Tobey Maguire) is watching the show - he's a huge fan of the show and knows all the episodes by heart. He lives in the real world of the 90's complete with a divorced working mother and an oversexed sister, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon). The girls at school pay him no mind, and how can they if his normal topic of conversation is about the minutiae in "Pleasantville."

One evening while his mother is away on a trip, he watches the show and fights with his sister over the remote control. As they are fighting, they are zapped away into their TV to the placid existence of Pleasantville! David and Jennifer are now Bud and Mary Sue Parker! Their parents are the goody-good Parkers (flawlessly played by William H. Macy and Joan Allen) who offer a high-calorie breakfast, including a plate full of fat pancakes and lots of syrup.

The world of Pleasantville is a sight unlike anything in the 90's mainly because it is not a real place. The local fireman only saves cats. The high-school boys never miss the rim shot when playing basketball. The high-school kids say "swell," as opposed to "cool." There is no existence beyond this town and, worse yet, they are all in black-and-white! "We're supposed to be in color," says Jennifer, assured that they are in Nerdville.

David doesn't react with any hostility to the town he knows so well. He works at the local soda shop along with the bland Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels), who doesn't know what to do when David switches chores at closing time. Of course, the one who starts trouble in this harmless town is Jennifer. She tells her pseudo mother, Betty Parker, that masturbation, and sex at Lover's Lane (where couples mostly hold hands), is worth trying. Betty goes to take a bath, excites herself, and the tree next their house goes up in colored flames - something this town has never seen.

It wouldn't be fair to give away any of the other surprises that "Pleasantville" has in store because the surprises are not the main thrill - the movie is a rich, human drama with touches of humor. The combination of black-and-white and color cinematography within the same shot is astoundingly good, yet the movie isn't just decorated with effects. The effects are used only as part of fundamental thematic concerns. In essence, the deeper message in "Pleasantville" isn't that we should let go of our inhibitions about sex, but that we shouldn't resist taking that step to wherever our destiny leads us.

The performances are right on target and make the themes resonate long after the film is over. Not enough can be raved about William H. Macy as the straight-arrow George Parker - an actor who surprises me in every film he's appeared in. He's perfectly cast and his ironic tone, when shouting 'Honey, I'm home!', is poignant and regaling. Joan Allen, one of the best actresses working right now, delivers another nuanced, heartbreaking performance as the always-smiling Betty Parker, whose own life is awakened by sexual possibilities, like having an affair with Mr. Johnson. What's most refreshing is that these two amazing actors slowly strip away any shred of stereotyping and reveal genuine human characters.

Tobey Maguire is one of those rare pleasures in the movies, a grown-up version of Kevin Kline (both appeared in "The Ice Storm" along with Allen). He has an ability to make us aware of what he's thinking all the time. His best scenes are when he applies black-and-white makeup to Betty's colored face, and when he tells stories to an avid crowd about places existing beyond their quaint little town while the music from Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" slips in quietly in the soundtrack.

Reese Witherspoon is also a rare delight (even in slipshod material like "Freeway"), and she nicely conveys a human soul in the very nineties, soulless Jennifer. It is also gratifying to witness her gradual transformation from vixen to intellectual.

"Pleasantville" is purely a pop extravaganza written and directed by Gary Ross ("Big"). The movie does not have the thrust or the verve of "Back to the Future," a similar 50's fantasy parable that depended more on irony through humor. It also ends on an unsatisfying note whereas some real imagination would have given it the necessary thematic conclusion.

The merits supersede the flaws, however, and a super script and an excellent ensemble cast make "Pleasantville" as joyous and human a film as we're likely to see from Hollywood this year. Its morals about thinking for yourself and appreciating beauty through love and knowledge may be simplistic, but they are thought-provoking and pleasant, indeed.

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