At the beginning of Gary Ross's Pleasantville, two unhappy suburban teenagers (is there any other kind?) fall down the rabbit hole of their TV set and find themselves trapped in a parallel universe--a 1950s sitcom more idealized than Ozzie and Harriet, sweeter than Father Knows Best. In this black-and-white realm, they are now characters on the show, Bud and Mary Sue Parker--"Sport" and "Muffin" to their chirpy dad. While prim Mom piles mountains of blueberry pancakes, bacon and ham steak on their breakfast plates, the kids' freshly scrubbed classmates at Pleasantville High School tell them how "swell" and "keen" things are. In Pleasantville, where the temperature is always 72 and the rains never fall, a big night out consists of dropping by the malt shop for a cheeseburger and a cherry Coke, then holding hands in lovers' lane.
What to do? Equipped with Nineties sensibilities and plagued by Nineties worries, David and Jennifer (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) are scarcely ideal candidates for time travel--especially when the destination is the never-never land of small-town America in 1958. David may be a trivia fan who knows every "Pleasantville" rerun inside out, but that doesn't mean he wants to take part.
Sounds like pretty cute stuff, doesn't it? Join the bloodlines of Back to the Future and The Truman Show, crossbreed into The Wizard of Oz, and there you have it--a perky entertainment with some gentle lessons to be learned about growing up.
Fortunately, Ross doesn't have heartwarming fantasy on his mind. And he's not really interested, it turns out, in our obsession with television. Instead, he's taken the ancient comedy of the fish out of water and refashioned it as a hilarious but surprisingly dark allegory about sexual repression and social intolerance. The satiric messages may sneak up on you, but they arrive just the same. In the unpleasant isolation of Pleasantville, conformity breeds contempt. Censoring a jukebox precedes burning books from the local library. Adding color to your gray life prompts shopkeepers to post signs warning "No coloreds."
By extension, it says here, the "family values" so strenuously espoused by fundamentalist ideologues are largely mythical.
In other words, Gary Ross's velvet glove conceals an iron first. And his punching power is something we might have foreseen: As the screenwriter of the body-switching comedy Big, he examined not only the trauma of childhood but the folly of maturity; as the writer of the Capra-esque farce Dave, he suggested that an ordinary guy with his heart in the right place would make a better chief executive than any politician. To understand the social motivation behind Pleasantville, which Ross wrote, produced and directed, it doesn't hurt to dig a little deeper into his resume: Aside from his movie work, he's a Democratic Party activist and sometime political speechwriter; his father, also a screenwriter, was blacklisted in the McCarthy-Hoover era.
Little wonder, then, that when David and Jennifer drop into a Fifties sitcom, they cast aside playacting to become revolutionaries. Once David sees through the social myths of Pleasantville, he starts revamping the episodes as he lives them. Sister Jennifer doesn't want to be there at all, ("We're, like, stuck in Nerdville!" she protests), but she eventually uses raw passion, then intellect, to reinvent an entire fiction. Pleasantville's most appealing (and most grandiose) conceit, then, is that two teenagers imbued with the diversity politics of the Nineties can liberate the Eisenhower years. Not even Don Knotts, a nostalgia-TV icon of major proportions, can stop them: Knotts plays the enigmatic TV repairman who transports the kids to Pleasantville, but they defy him, too, once their mission becomes clear.
In this fantasy, David and Jen literally revivify what Ross sees as a soulless, colorless era. Using more than 1,700 digital visual effects, movie technicians Chris Watts and Michael Southard slowly transform uptight, black-and-white Pleasantville into a Technicolor dream of possibilities. First we see a pink blush on a single rose. Next a Thunderbird convertible glows pale green. Once the floodgates of emotion are open, the town brightens like magic. The local soda jerk (Jeff Daniels) is reborn as a painter and floods the malt shop windows with his vivid pictures. Bud and Mary Sue's conventional mom (Joan Allen) discovers her womanhood and bursts into a vision of creamy skin tones, blue dresses and ruby lips. The teens' friends awaken to the world in many hues. Even the monochromatic dad, George (William H. Macy), is transformed. A bit later, so is civic booster and crypto-dictator Big Bob (the late character man J.T. Walsh, in his last performance). Remember the old "objective correlative" from lit class? In Pleasantville, color is freedom itself.
The movie gives off a whiff of solemn artiness here and there, and the effects people are so busy playing with their electronic crayons that our attention is sometimes diverted. But this uncommonly clever, surprisingly poignant fairy tale packs a social wallop that we're not quite prepared for. Right-wing family groups will probably hate it. But as an act of liberal imagination, Pleasantville may be just the kind of tonic beleaguered Americans could use at the moment--when so many citizens are once more viewing our national life in black and white.
Written, produced and directed by Gary Ross. Starring Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, Joan Allen, William H. Macy and Jeff Daniels.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.