Of the films I love, there are the good, the great, and the Pleasantvilles. Pleasantville is a movie that says many things but never gets preachy. The film draws you in from the start.
As the film starts, a barrage of television images hits us, as if we’re channel surfing with someone who hasn’t found anything interesting to watch yet. The frantic channel surfing finally stops at a family channel, which features 50s TV shows. You know the type of shows, the ones that are wholesome and good for the entire family. These are the shows that some politicians want the world to be like, the shows that have “family values.”
We find out that we were channel surfing with David (Tobey Maguire) who has no social life and is pleasantly referred to as a “nerd” by his cooler sister, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon). Jennifer is a girl who strives to be cool: she acts like a slut, she doesn’t read, and tonight she has a hot date. David also has a hot date tonight: his is with a TV show marathon. The TV show is called Pleasantville and the marathon has a trivia contest with a cash prize of $1000. David is a big Pleasantville buff and can answer any question about any episode of the show. He’s ready to win.
David and Jennifer fight over the remote and it is torn to pieces. A friendly TV repairman (Don Knotts) replaces the remote with a strange looking one. After the repairman leaves, the fight for the TV remote is on again - that is until David pushes the wrong button on the remote and both he and Jennifer are sent directly into Pleasantville.
Pleasantville, the movie, is not the story of David and Jennifer trying to escape from the TV show, though it starts out this way. Pleasantville is the story of David and Jennifer trying to live and adapt in a world that is black and white and has the same “family values” that everyone is now talking about. Writer/director Gary Ross doesn’t get preachy with this theme, but he doesn’t let the theme slip away either.
The movie has the underlying message that there were flaws in those 50s family values, and we should be careful in wishing for those times again. With all the problems of the 90s, this is definitely the better place to live. Sure, it’s nice for a husband to come home at 6 pm, say, “Honey, I’m home”, and be seated fifteen minutes later to a hot dinner with the family. But, how is it for the wife who spends the day slaving over the stove? Is that what we really want today? Would this really work? Once changed, things cannot easily change back, as David observes. David’s Pleasantville Mom (Joan Allen) finds this out early on when Jennifer teaches her what sex is and then what she can do if Dad (William H. Macy) doesn’t want to have sex. This, like the other radical ideas that David and Jennifer inject into this once stable community, starts the people thinking. The ideas that David and Jennifer spread help the people of Pleasantville break out of their “normal” lives into something more exciting.
The one thing wonderful about Pleasantville is how the movie slowly transitions from a black and white to color. The special effects in the movie work hand in hand with the story to the extent that we are left to ponder why some of the Pleasantville citizens are in color and why others remain black and white. From the first showing of color, the special effects team has put a sense of awe into the movie. There is nothing more spectacular than a bright red rose set on a black and white background. As the movie progresses, more and more colors start to saturate the film. Kudos to the special effects team at The Computer Film Company for making Pleasantville so colorful.
The two lead performers in Pleasantville, Maguire and Witherspoon, are excellent. Witherspoon handles her switch, from slut to smart, very well. Maguire is subtle but good.
The two performances that stick out as great are those of Joan Allen and William H. Macy. The scene where Allen gets to show off is a scene with Maguire in which she is in color and is forced to find a way to cover up the color that she likes. This is a scene that left the theatre silent, except for some sobbing. Macy is a character actor who is at the top of his game, no matter what. I loved the scene in which Macy comes home, puts his jacket and suitcase down, hangs up his hat and cries out - like regular - “Honey, I’m home!” only to find that his wife is not there. “Where’s my dinner?” he asks plaintively, many times, before resigning himself to the fact that his life has changed forever.
Gary Ross, who wrote the touching film Big, debuts as a director with Pleasantville. And he proves that he can write a good script and then turn it into a brilliant realization on film. Ross’s script is laced with enough to plug up holes, which might have shown up if the script was written a less talented person. For instance, the geography class doesn’t learn about “world” geography. There is no “world” in Pleasantville; the whole world lives on Main Street. When asked where Main Street ends, the teacher simply answers that the end of Main Street is the beginning. Kudos to Ross for putting together Pleasantville.
Pleasantville is a Don’t Miss film. Pleasantville makes us think, entertains us, inspires us, and makes us laugh. There aren’t many films that can do all of this. Don’t Miss Pleasantville - if there is just one movie you see this year, see Pleasantville.
Edited by Cher Johnson.