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Pleasantville

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All-Reviews.com 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 Mark OHara
No Rating Supplied

There is no town called "Pleasantville" in my state. But as my son and I left the theater, we saw a scene that could have been Main Street in the film Pleasantville. The uptown area of a midwestern town: banks and small businesses, a gas station and United Dairy Farmers on the corner. Red bricks pave the street.

Gary Ross's version of Pleasantville has to be taken as a fable. There are too many unexplained motives and twists. Why would a TV repairman (Don Knotts) show up at a house just seconds after the remote is broken? Why would he send the children of the house into the black-and-white world of a 1958 sitcom? How do the two survive there without access to bathrooms?

Once you have suspended your disbelief, however, Pleasantville is a pleasant diversion, one that is filled with delightful effects that generate fascinating ideas.

Tobey Maguire plays David, the slightly younger brother of Jennifer (Reese Witherspooon). Quickly we see even David's sister perceives him as a dork; one of her friends comments, "You must have come from, like, the cool side of the uterus." It is when David and Jennifer have a tug o' war over a new and mysterious remote that they are thrust back into the pasty world of sexless situation comedy, the domain of Ozzie Nelson and Donna Reed and Robert Young (though here the teens get more of a taste of Rod Serling). When the repairman refuses to speak with them, Bud and Mary Sue - the names of the TV characters they have replaced - are forced to inhabit the odd world whose "plots" David has memorized.

I was concerned that Pleasantville would jump on the bandwagon of cop-outs that dismisses large parts of the past as inferior and incorrect. But the film is out neither to put down the past nor to pique our nostalgia. What works best is the film's ideas. First, it's one of the best arguments against censorship that has been added to our literature in some time. A book burning scene is not as eerie, perhaps, as one in Fahrenheit 451, though its implications are just as chilling. More importantly, the film acts as the quintessential advertisement for the arts, going so far as to suggest they are indispensable to our humanity. As a teacher, I only hope that younger viewers notice that good things happen to the residents when they read or paint. The metaphorical black-and-white pallor vanishes in the person who goes after the "color" in life.

In Big and Dave, Gary Ross pursued unlikely storylines. Here he expands upon his themes of magical accidents happening to everyday people. And the tricks Ross employs are wonderful, the tale making use of technology not for explosions but for bizarre split-screens of color and meaning. A red rose is the first hue seen by Skip (Paul Walker), captain of the high school basketball team who has just been deflowered by Mary Sue Parker. Her brother Bud connects the outbreaks of color to her transplanted 90's sensibilities. Herein lies one of the film's weaknesses, when Bud constantly nags Mary Sue not to impose her behaviors on the innocent past. It's as if we are watching a Bradbury story and the time travelers are threatened with the prospect of throwing off the entire future through a misplaced and miniscule action. It's Bud, too, who later tells his television dad, George Parker (William H. Macy), that change is inevitable and good, that it's harder to go back to the way you were before.

Ross is very clever when he re-enacts the fall of Adam and Eve, with a girl plucking a red apple from a black-and-white tree and tempting Bud. This is not heavy-handed symbolism; it's tongue-in-cheek mind-play, suggesting that life is happier when it is not sterile and perfect: it's best when there is silliness and sexiness and even danger. Timeless and entertaining ideas, these, the stuff of good literature.

In one of the most charming subplots, Betty Parker finds her color by debunking the myths of dutiful wife and mother. Looking like Pat Nixon again, Joan Allen is perfect in the role. We chuckle when we see she must learn about sex from her daughter, who is now a regular at lover's lane. And when Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels) rubs off the make-up she is using to cover her flesh tones, Betty realizes the potential of her own long-denied emotions. Daniels also excels as Mr. Johnson, owner of the soda shop where Bud works. Good at looking baffled at Bud's explanations, Daniels conveys the slow but complete change his character accomplishes. Viewers will be fond of remembering a scene in which Bud brings Mr. Johnson a large art book from the library. Johnson likes to paint Christmas scenes on the inside of his shop window, and here his epiphany is clear when he glimpses for the first time the Titians and Van Goghs, the sweet strains of Randy Newman's Pleasantville Suite rising in the background.

Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon portray the most interesting relationship in the film. As brother and sister, they bicker and ignore and defy, but just like the characters in the world they occupy, they end happily. Witherspoon brings to her role a calculated agenda that only seems whimsical. She puts on just the right wiles. On the other hand, Maguire seems almost entirely innocent. At times puzzled or frustrated, Maguire is best at the earnest straight-talking that serves as the film's most heavy-handed message, in a speech delivered to his real mother. It's here that the script stumbles -- not Maguire's acting. Both actors are beyond the teenage years they depict, but so probably are the rest of the supporting soda shop gang.

In his last role, J. T. Walsh is superb as "Big Bob," the mayor and head-honcho of the chamber of commerce and bowling league. Walsh adds good comic timing to the dry edge given to his character, reminiscent of Dub Taylor or Martin Balsam, character actors capable of getting laughs out of dead-serious dialogue. His short hair combed straight up in what the venerable barber in our town calls a "Princeton," Walsh wheedles and pontificates nicely. The script fails him too, though, when his character charges off screen at the end of an otherwise powerful "trial."

I know why the producers chose the Beatles' song for the soundtrack, but why did they get Fiona Apple to sing it in a sleepy and sluggish voice? The other parts of the soundtrack are charming, Newman's generic but still moving compositions mixed with vintage pieces, snippets of which we hear at crucial spots in the story.

Leaving the theater, the film's ideas strong and immediate in my head, I remembered a Saturday afternoon eight years ago. I had taken my son to see the first Ninja Turtles, and when we stepped out onto High Street, we saw a crowded and boisterous uptown. I had forgotten about the Klan rally. These happened in other towns, not ours. As we stood before the old marquee of the Princess Theater, I thought quickly how I could get my 5 year-old to the car with safety and a minimal explanation.

It occurred to me that perhaps the most worthy part of Pleasantville is its attempt to engage profound ideas. Sure, a lot is left unexplained, but we are also asked to think about the nature of hate and prejudice, the unpleasant colors in the human spectrum.

Copyright 2000 Mark OHara

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