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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Pleasantville

Starring: Tobey Maguire, Jeff Daniels
Director: Gary Ross
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 116 Minutes
Release Date: October 1998
Genres: Comedy, Sci-Fi/Fantasy

*Also starring: Joan Allen, William H. Macy, J.T. Walsh, Reese Witherspoon, Don Knotts, Jane Kaczmarek

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Everyone wants to be happy. But ask Americans what they would need, realistically, to make them content and I'll bet a majority would say a house with a white picket fence, and dog and a couple of clean-cut kids. This Father-Knows-Best, Brady-Bunch, Ozzie-and-Harriet utopia is exactly what writer Gary Ross unfolds in "Pleasantville": just an agreeable little town that nobody leaves, one which is blissfully ignorant of what may lie outside or cares to find out. Who could blame the people? There are no graffiti, no drugs, no crime. Everyone looks about the same and has similar cultural and political values. Life is safe, secure, predictable, with dinner on the table for all the husbands, wives perfectly content to avoid the hassles of work and to stay at home, kids cheering on a basketball team that never loses a game and never even fails to sink a shot. You might not expect such a movie to be much more than a reflection of the predictability and concomitant drabness of small-town America, but "Pleasantville" is in fact a wonderfully entertaining work full of easy-to-swallow social commentary. It is a testament to the power of the movies to maneuver the audience that this one proves today's complex world--filled with AIDS, crime, drug- addiction, global warming, terrorism, broken homes, and most of all uncertainty--is to be preferred.

The Pleasantville of the title is like a town on Prozac: no particular worries but then no color either. Photographed largely in black-and-white to symbolize the placid, even keel in which the residents live, "Pleasantville" boasts not only tranquil relationship among its people but perfect climate as well; as the weatherman reports, the temperature range is 72 high, 72 low, and not a cloud in the sky.

How do we get to sample the wares? Just find yourself a TV repairman with mystical powers, as David (Tobey Maguire) did one frantic evening as his sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) prepares for a hot date while David, an expert on sitcom trivia, fixes to tune the TV to a contest that rewards the participant with the most knowledge about a television series called "Pleasantville." David would likely fit right in with those Americans who dream of utopia-with a-picket- fence, as his family life is a mess. He escapes psychologically by immersing himself in the show, laughing with the cornball situations, while chomping on his chips. When the remote control unit breaks down just before the show, he is about to give up hope, but a strange-looking TV repairman bounces in from the street to offer him a large replacement for the crushed unit. Turning on the set to another episode, he and his sister are transported to the home of George (William H. Macy) and his wife Betty (Joan Allen), seamlessly taking the place of their teenaged children, Bud and Mary Sue.

As an expert on the show, David knows exactly what is going to happen and does not want to upset the stable lives of the townspeople. He is pushed to act the missionary from the volatile world of the 1990's when his sexually active sister seduces the captain of the basketball team, a tidy-cut fellow who expect nothing more than hand-holding until he is to begin going steady with a girl. David's hands-off attitude changes when he becomes appalled by the provincialism of the citizens and is made to feel like a celebrity when he is cornered everywhere by peers who want to know everything about the great big world that they scarcely knew existed. He develops a particularly poignant relationship with a soda- fountain waiter, Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels), who is in mortal fear of doing anything--even preparing a cheeseburger or shutting the front door--in any manner but the one to which he is accustomed; and to Betty Parker (Joan Allen) who, as George's wife does not even know what she is missing until her "son" David clues her in on the nature of imaginative sex.

To that point director Gary Ross plays it safe, providing an amusing comedy with little social gravity. The second part of the film--like Robert Benigni's "Life is Beautiful"--turns into heartfelt social commentary which quite effectively points up the evils that can result when the powers-that-be are threatened by changes. When husbands no longer can be assured of dinner, when older men and women are confronted with a frank, artistic exhibitions of nudity decorating the luncheonette walls, when kids patronize a library and learn about life on their own, the inflamed men and women resort to fascist procedures like bookburning, window-smashing, and overt denigration of all things that upset their vision of a placid life.

Ross's cinematic techniques are every bit a match for his observations on the nature of humanity. Each time a resident becomes the slightest bit liberated--when a boy or girl discovers the joys of sex, when a housewife devoted exclusively to the care of others begins to find pleasure in her own body, when a hitherto homespun individual discovers the beauty of fine painting--they turn from black-and-white to color, which is Ross's way of approving their willingness to confront the pluckier aspects of life. With an implicit nod to Aristotle and his theory of the golden mean, he even shows that the sexy, cool Jennifer cannot herself be released from a black-and-white existence until she develops an attraction for books, study, and a more placid way of life than that which she has been customarily devoted. While Ross gets good supporting roles from William H. Macy as the man of the house, Joan Allen as his devoted but ultimately dissatisfied wife and J.T. Walsh as the leader of a right-wing group determined to suppress freedom, he is blessed by a grand work of young Tobey Maguire as a natural leader of a Babbitt-like community determined to free it from shackles it never knew it wore. Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, whose masterwork "Escape from Freedom" holds that there is nothing people fear more than emancipation from their own manacles, would have loved this marvelously entertaining and uplifting piece of filmmaking.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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