In ‘Pleasantville,’ Life in the ‘50s Pales by Comparison
Today’s world, teenage David is told in school, is not a user-friendly place. The job market is shrinking, the chance of getting AIDS rising, and global drought and famine are practically here. So is it any wonder that he gets more emotional satisfaction from a 1950s black-and-white TV show than from his own life?
The show, aptly named “Pleasantville,” has a “Father Knows Best” simplicity and innocence that modern children of divorce cannot resist. You can set your clock by father George coming home every night, putting his hat on the rack and saying, “Honey, I’m here,” as wife Betty hands him a martini and joins him in beaming with pride over children Mary Sue and Bud.
Writer-director Gary Ross starts with our nostalgic infatuation with this kind of fantasy past and takes it one stop beyond. Yes, that TV world is fun to daydream about but would anyone actually want to live there? And if a pair of modern teenagers found themselves suddenly trapped in the place, how would they react?
Ross, as his Oscar nominations for the scripts of both “Big” and “Dave” demonstrate, is a talented writer with a gift for warm and clever humor. “Pleasantville,” his first shot at directing, turns out to be both a challenge technically and ambitious thematically. While the technical problems have been beautifully solved, “Pleasantville” takes an unexpected dramatic turn and ends up having more on its mind than it can successfully handle.
The infatuation squeaky-voiced high schooler David (Tobey Maguire) feels for “Pleasantville” is, he hopes, about to pay off. A nostalgia network is broadcasting 24 hours of reruns and offering a sizable cash prize to whoever knows the most show trivia, and no one knows more about George, Betty, Mary Sue and Bud than he does.
David, however, has a socially active sister named Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) who plans to monopolize the TV watching an MTV event with a local hunk. She and David battle over the set’s remote control and when it ends up smashed, a repairman from Reliable TV (a charming Don Knotts) magically appears at their door and offers them a substitute.
“This one has a lot more oomph,” the repairman says, handing over a shiny silver remote. “You want something that’ll put you right in the show.” And, sure enough, a pushed button places Jennifer and David literally inside the black-and-white world of “Pleasantville.” “It’s not possible, is it possible, it can’t be possible,” they moan.
Though David knows the show inside out, it’s still hard for him to adjust to living in a world where there is no color, nothing bad ever happens and firemen haven’t heard of fire, working only to rescue kittens trapped in trees.
Party animal Jennifer has even more trouble with “being trapped in Nerdville,” though she’s somewhat mollified when she discovers that handsome Skip Martin (Paul Walker), the captain of Pleasantville’s undefeated basketball team--they never so much as miss a shot--thinks she’s “the keenest girl in the whole school.”
Just holding hands Pleasantville style, however, is not Jennifer’s modus operandi. A worried David pleads with her that doing anything rash “could screw up their whole universe,” but Jennifer, believing that “maybe these people don’t want to be geeks all their lives,” is determined to introduce carnal knowledge to this completely chaste universe.
It’s not sex that changes Pleasantville, but the experience of real emotion, and as local folk start to actually feel things, they slowly, one at a time, turn into full-color characters on the screen.
Visual effects supervisor Chris Watts and color effects designer Michael Southard worked closely with filmmaker Ross and cinematographer John Lindley to get these delicate color transitions right, and the result is a satisfying success. Color and black and white exist magically and seamlessly in the same frames, echoing and surpassing the beautiful effects of Michael Powell’s 1946 “A Matter of Life and Death.” Following on the visual success of “What Dreams May Come,” “Pleasantville” further illustrates how limitless the future is for the inventive use of new technologies.
Ross’ work as a writer-director is equally felicitous, at least at first. This TV world has been imagined down to its smallest detail, the cast is perfectly chosen (the easily peeved Witherspoon and the always excellent Joan Allen as mom Betty are especially good) and Ross displays an easy touch and a subtle eye for quiet humor.
There comes a point, however, when “Pleasantville” stops being comic and turns didactic. As David and Jennifer stumble into this unexpected world, so audiences suddenly stumble into that other staple of the 1950s, the message picture. Ross’ missive is earnest and well-intentioned, but it’s difficult not to feel that his film both runs on too long and overreaches its dramatic resources in its attempt to deliver it. It’s true, as David says in reference to “pleasant,” that “there are so many other things that are so much better,” but a surprise civics lesson may not be one of them.
* MPAA rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements emphasizing sexuality and for language. Times guidelines: some sexual situations.
Tobey Maguire: David
Jeff Daniels: Mr. Johnson
Joan Allen: Betty
William H. Macy: George
J.T. Walsh: Big Bob
Don Knotts: TV repairman
Reese Witherspoon: Jennifer
A Larger Than Life production, released by New Line Cinema. Director Gary Ross. Producers Jon Kilik, Robert J. Degus, Steven Soderbergh, Gary Ross. Executive producers Michael De Luca, Mary Parent. Screenplay Gary Ross. Cinematographer John Lindley. Editor William Goldenberg. Costumes Judianna Makovsky. Music Randy Newman. Production design Jeannine Opppewall. Art director Dianne Wager. Set decorator Jay Hart. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.