Pleasantville (1998)

reviewed by
Dragan Antulov

A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 2004

One of the least appreciated aspects of many great films was in their

political agendas. Those agendas aren't often mentioned because the

ideology behind them is unacceptable or at least very controversial in

modern times. For example, BIRTH OF A NATION is often

associated with white American racism, BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN is

seen as celebration of Bolshevik revolutionary terror while the classic

works of Leni von Riefenstahl can't be separated from the ideology of

National Socialism. But the political agendas aren't in the exclusive

domain of the past. Even the modern day Hollywood - institution

primarily dedicated to providing entertainment to the masses and

making money for the entertainers - can slip certain political agendas

into its products. Few such products had their political agenda as

explicit as in the case of PLEASANTVILLE, 1998 fantasy comedy

written and directed by Gary Ross.

At first glance, the plot of PLEASANTVILLE looks more like a typical

Hollywood "high concept" than political propaganda. It starts in

present day America with typical 1990s dysfunctional family - single

mother (played by Janet Kaczmarek) and two children in their late

teens. Jennifer Wagner (played by Reese Witherspoon) lives only to

have as much fun and sex as possible, while her introvert brother

David (played by Tobey Maguire) finds a better, kinder and gentler

world in the form of "Pleasantville", 1950s sitcom that shows the life

of perfect American family in a perfect small town. One day David,

who spends all his time watching "Pleasantville", gets mysterious

remote control that would magically transport him and Jennifer on

the other side of television screen. Two siblings have suddenly found

themselves in the sitcom and took the roles of Bud and Mary Sue,

two children of George (played by William H. Macy) and Betty

Parker (played by Joan Allen). While George, thanks to being a

"Pleasantville" buff, manages to play his role, his sister is horrified

with the world which is not only literally black-and-white, but also

deprived of many joys of modern life, including sex. She decides to

imply the latter on local boys and, as a result, dull, predictable world

of Pleasantville starts to change with some objects and people

literally getting colour. Those changes frighten and infuriate many

"normal" black-and-white citizens of Pleasantville. Those

conservatives, led by Big Bob (played by J.T. Walsh), decide to

protect the old order at any cost, including series of book burnings

and other oppressive measures against "coloureds".

PLEASANTVILLE is wonderful film to look at. What was supposed

to be rather simple and prosaic task - putting small objects in bright

colours within black-and-white pictures - was solved with the

revolutionary use of CGI technology. Because of large number of

such details and large number of such scenes, PLEASANTVILLE

briefly held the record for the highest number of single CGI effects

per film. Ross succeeded in turning those seemingly prosaic images -

which also had symbolic meaning within the context of film - into

the real works of art. Music by Randy Newman was also very good

and the film's soundtrack benefited from the combination of 1950s

saccharine pop and Miles Davis' jazz. The acting in the film was also

very good - Tobey Maguire was very convincing as introvert youth

while Reese Witherspoon displayed her great comic talent. William

H. Macy is also wonderful in her role, same as Joan Allen in another

great role of emotionally suppressed housewife. Sadly, J.T. Walsh,

here in one of his last on-screen appearances, didn't present anything

more than standard role of menacing villain.

Good acting, impressive visuals and music aren't the only reasons

why PLEASANTVILLE stands out among many 1990s Hollywood

"high concept" comedies. Its author had a clear political agenda and

used the film in order to push it. This agenda in many aspects

corresponded with the dominating worldview of Hollywood

establishment during Clinton years - after the end of Cold War, the

world was on the brink of new Golden Age of free market,

globalisation, multiculturalism, all supported by the military might of

the world's only and invulnerable superpower. According to Ross,

the only threat to this utopia came form the within America itself - in

the form of Republican Party and other conservatives that offered the

alternative to 1990s realities. This alternative was romantic and

idealised vision of America before the social and cultural turmoil of

1960s. Whole purpose of PLEASANTVILLE was to shatter the

illusion of the gentler and kinder world that had existed before

Vietnam and Watergate. For Ross this vision is best embodied in

1950s television sitcoms, each offering sterile, "family friendly" vision

of utopia that once existed in American suburbs, exclusively

populated by white middle class. Ross attacks this vision by showing

that the facade of happy family life and "traditional values" covered

ignorance, sexual frustrations and bigotry. Problems like broken

homes and AIDS are small price to pay for the liberties gained in

1960s and cherished by American social liberals in Clinton years. The

1950s world was the exact opposite of Clinton's era and had to be

radically changed at any cost, which is exactly what happens in the


It could be argued that Ross' view on 1950s is as one-sided as the

view of the conservatives who praise the period as the Golden Age.

Perception of historic realities based on 1950s network television is as

misleading as perception of historic realities based on 1990s

Hollywood films. Both 1950s sitcoms and 1990s Hollywood

blockbusters reduced world's complexities to simple, "safe" and

easily understandable "family friendly" concepts without challenging

the notion of present day reality as the best possible world.

PLEASANTVILLE isn't very different - in its take on 1950s, which is

ironically black-and-white, everything that happened in 1960s is

change for the better. Blue-collar workers become accomplished

artists, repressed housewives become "whole persons" through

masturbation and extramarital affairs and even the sex-crazed

airhead miraculously transforms into intellectual. The brave new

post-"Pleasantville" world is somehow being spared from the things

like race riots, drugs, teen pregnancies and unemployment.

Gary Ross is, of course, entitled to his worldview and he actually

should be commended for expressing it with such honesty and

clarity. But, in doing so, Ross failed to prevent politics from taking

over the film at the expense of its entertainment value. This is exactly

what happened with PLEASANTVILLE. The movie is best in the first

half, when two 1990s protagonists explore 1950s world. The culture

clash produces many funny and entertaining moments. In the second

half, Ross loses his sense of humour and tries to compensate it with

the socio-political allegory which is as subtle as elephant in the glass

store. Good example for that could be found in "Pleasantville"

conservatives being presented as Nazi-like monsters. This approach

fails. Instead of embracing Ross' idea of change always being

positive, many in the audience would actually start to sympathise

with people of "Pleasantville" whose world is being destroyed by

smug and patronising teenagers from the future. Ross also has some

problems with the pacing, especially at the very end of the film, when

the audience has to endure overlong and not very cathartic finale.

PLEASANTVILLE is a good and at times thought-provoking film.

But, ironically, from today's perspective it is a vision as false as the

one it tried to debunk. Today we live in a world which is much uglier

and more dangerous than in 1998. Not all changes are changes for the

RATING: 5/10 (++)
Review written on May 3rd 2004
Dragan Antulov a.k.a. Drax - Filmske recenzije na hrvatskom/Movie Reviews in

Croatian - Online Films Critics Society

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