Written, Directed and Produced by : Gary Ross
Main Cast : Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels, William H. Macy, the late J.T. Walsh, Don Knotts
Length : 120 minutes approx
Official Web Site: www.pleasantville.com
This Review Filed: April 21, 1999.
Rating : * * * * out of * * * * *
PLEASANTVILLE is a movie about change and the loss of innocence. It's about how the bland past can be romanticised into perfection, as well as the unreasonable stranglehold of that imagined perfection on us when its values are challenged by an age of new discoveries. Gary Ross (who wrote BIG, the Tom Hanks vehicle from long ago) gives us a film about the goodness of change, and the new horizons and hopes it offers us.
The film starts off as innocuously as the reruns of the 1950s black-and-white sitcom that David (Maguire) is a fan of. Pleasantville citizens are model citizens- happy, cheery, insipid and boring. The high school basketball team is perfect, because no one ever misses a basket. The middle-aged men who bowl in the town's alley strike or spare effortlessly. The firemen only rescue cats up in trees since nothing ever burns. And families are wholesome, goody-two-shoes, white, middle-class and uninteresting. It's this black-and-white 1950s America that David and Jennifer (Witherspoon) end up in due to a remote control from a mysterious TV repairman (Don Knotts). While Jennifer thinks she's in Nerdville and wants out, David has come into his favourite TV show and wants to preserve its ordered universe.
But whether they like it or not, they bring change to this world of Pleasantville. First, it's things like one of the guys in the basketball team missing a hoop, and everyone in the team reacting in fear and wonder (in one hilarious scene, the coach says to keep away from the dubious basketball- it's dangerous, he says). Then it's Mary Sue (Jennifer's new identity)being sexually intimate with a cute guy from the high school basketball team. The night ends with the guy seeing a rose blooming in a bush in full colour.
Bit by bit, more elements of change turn up in Pleasantville, especially along with the colours that seep into their universe and brighten their bland world.
Mary Sue breaks the taboo of not talking about sex (revolutionary in the bland 1950s American universe), and tells her mother (Joan Allen) about certain ways to please herself because she doesn't have sex with her husband (that doesn't happen in sitcoms). This sees Mrs Parker taking a hot bath and pleasing herself, so much so that her passion seems to make the tree in the Parker's yard light up in full colour fire. David, as Bud Parker, has to mobilise the firemen into action by shouting "Cat!" because no one knows what "fire" is supposed to mean. Then it starts the ball rolling in an amazing chain reaction- one change that brings wonder to amazement to the people of Pleasantville leads to another. Bud has to explain how he knew about fire, and he says that there are roads that lead out of Pleasantville which contradicts the high school logic of how Main Street leads back in a circle from its end to its beginning in a loop. Once we've invented the wheel to travel roads to newness and change, we cannot stop the process.
But what I found most interesting is how Ross manages to plant literary and American historical references into the metaphor of the loss of innocence.
Those unwilling to understand or acknowledge change turn into ultra-conservative rednecks, who persecute the "un-pleasant" elements of the town, and call them "coloreds"- in the very same way white supremacist America also directed prejudice and hatred against the African Americans and called them "coloreds."
When people learn that there are some roads that go on forever, and out of Pleasantville, it is like an America awakening to a world around it and losing its parochialism.
Margaret, a girl from Bud's school, takes a liking to him after he helps put out the fire, and when they go up to Lovers' Lane, she plucks an apple from the tree and offers it to him. It Adam and Eve all over again, and it's both funny and charming. The tragic fall of Original Sin is turned into an affirmation of humanity- its flaws which are also its strengths, and which make humankind special. Ross even turns the TV repairman into some kind of quirky god, who complains that Bud and Mary Sue are screwing up the Paradise he's given to them.
But PLEASANTVILLE seems to suggest that paradise lost is as much a tragedy of loss, as gaining a new world teeming with the knowledge of both good and evil (eat of the tree and find out). And it appears that humanity is better for discovering these things, enriched and uplifted by this knowledge.
PLEASANTVILLE is a wonderful film, and the knowledge that the loss of innocence can be a change for the best is one confident step into the new century that we can be thankful for.
When Mr Johnson, the owner of the Soda Shop, helps Mrs Parker wipe away the grey make-up she uses to conceal the fact that she has changed to full colour, he tells her that the colour is wonderful, and she shouldn't hide it. It's a recognition that we cannot hide in the past forever, especially with the present and future blossoming in vivid colours around us. That sounds like a good idea.
The Flying Inkpot's Rating System
* Wait for the TV2 broadcast.
** A little creaky, but still better than staying at home with Gotcha!
*** Pretty good, bring a friend.
**** Amazing, potent stuff.
***** Perfection. See it twice.
Read InkVault current film reviews at The Flying Inkpot
Read archived movie reviews at The Flying Inkpot.
the Flying Inkpot
Resources at The Flying Inkpot