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
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
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