Saturday, May 7, 2011

Pleasantville Movie Review: Splashing the World with Color

First published in The Connecticut College Voice on 30 October 1998.
Republished here with some minor editorial adjustments that do not affect content.

Gary Ross’s directorial debut, Pleasantville is a masterpiece of enormous relevance.  Like Big and Dave (both written by Ross), Pleasantville presents a fantasy world from which we have a lot to learn.

Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon play David and Jennifer, twins who each cope with their broken home in different ways. She is an adolescent rebel while he escapes to the fantastical world of “Pleasantville,” a 50’s sitcom in the style of “Father Knows Best,” as his parents argue over the phone. One night, a creepy TV repairman (Don Knotts) shows up at the door and offers them a special remote with a little more “oomph.” With the push of a button, David and Jennifer are pulled into the black and white world of “Pleasantville” where they fill in for Bud and Mary Sue, the children of Betty (Joan Allen) and George Parker (William H. Macy).


Jennifer reacts harshly: “I’m pasty,” she exclaims at her colorless skin. But this is a world that David knows better than his own. David urges his sister to play along so as not to disturb their universe. But in a town where nothing ever happens, things are bound to start happening when two 90’s teens show up.

Taking her date to “Lover’s Lane,” Jennifer engages in the (for this world) unthinkable, unspeakable act. Her TV mother Betty asks, “What goes on up at Lover’s Lane?” and “What’s sex?”  Slowly their black and white world changes to color – first a rose, then a book, and eventually the people. The change to color is a reflection of the fact that people are beginning to have independent thought. The owner of the diner, Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels) is ecstatic one night when, unlike the way he’s done it for so long, he closes the blinds and then the register.

The color itself, beautifully fused with the black and white, functions as a character of its own. It slowly takes over the town, having a life of its own. It is a characteristic desired by some and reviled by others. When Betty turns to color, George consoles her, “It’ll go away.”  Her reply ­– “I don’t want it to go away!”

Much to George’s chagrin, he returns home from work one night in the rain (it has never before rained in Pleasantville) to an empty house with – NO DINNER.  He joins his fellow Chamber of Commerce members, including the mayor (the late J. T. Walsh in his final performance), at the bowling alley. Together they lay down new laws regarding the “coloreds.” They soon discover that no one can hide his true colors.

“Pleasantville” the TV show is itself a mockery of shows that attempted to reflect Eisenhower’s America such as “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver” – a post-WWII bliss in which nothing could go wrong. The 50’s were not a wholly innocent time as some would have us think – remember McCarthyism. Pleasantville doesn’t attempt to show us that the 90’s are decadent, but that we know how to handle the problems we do have.

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