Sunday, December 14, 2014

Pleasantville Movie Review

I reviewed Pleasantville in 1998 for The Connecticut College Voice, but upon revisiting the film recently, decided that a new review was in order.

It’s so nice to return to a sixteen year old movie that you thought at that time was very good and find that it remains just as interesting and just as powerful now as it was then. I put Pleasantville in my top ten for 1998 and am happy to discover that it will remain there. I think the salience of the messaging of Pleasantville has only increased with time. Sure, the TV landscape has changed considerably since then. The Prime Time schedule hardly dominates anymore. Every basic cable station and even streaming providers have gotten into original content production. But TV’s roots still stretch back to the 1950s and a schedule full of wholesome plots directing family values toward the American public.

Tobey Maguire plays David, a contemporary teenager obsessed with one of those old shows, a “Father Knows Best”-like sitcom called “Pleasantville” about the Parkers, an all-American family of four. There’s mom Betty (Joan Allen), dad George (William H. Macy), Bud, and Mary Sue, whose roles will be filled by David and his sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) when they are accidentally inserted into the program.

David is preparing to watch a marathon of the show, which serves as a kind of escape for him from his broken home. He doesn’t like listening to his mother shout at this father over the phone. And his sister, preparing for a sexy date, wants to watch TV. She’s among the popular crowd shunning her brother. Their family paints what looks like a very 1990s portrait of the broken nuclear family.

On the night David and Jennifer fight over the remote and break it, a repairman (Don Knotts) shows up at their door with a replacement. It transports them right into “Pleasantville” where they are meant to play along with the townspeople’s belief that they are real people. And as such, they embody the never-really-existent ideals of Eisenhower’s America where the kids are perfect with no real troubles. Dad goes to work and comes home to a wonderful home-cooked meal on the table. The basketball team always wins and the neighborhood soda fountain is reliably always serving the best malteds and burgers. Oh, and the end of Main Street is the beginning again because there’s nothing outside of Pleasantville.

The other big kicker is that their world is actually in black-and-white. Sure, they understand and possess language for talking about color, but they don’t understand color like you and I do. Their lack of color becomes this beautiful little metaphor for ignorance and innocence. As soon as David and Jennifer start changing things, they begin endowing their classmates and neighbors with independent thought which begets new ideas and, in turn, actual color. It starts small – a flower, a dress, a pair of lips – and eventually everything in town starts turning except the men on the Chamber of Commerce, led by their president (J.T. Walsh, in his final role), who just want to keep bowling and coming home to hot dinner.

Pleasantville was Gary Ross’s directorial debut after he wrote the equally fanciful storylines of Big and Dave. Here there is enough whimsy in the middle section to make the film a lot of fun. The teenagers of Pleasantville gather around for David to tell them about what’s outside their limited town. After Jennifer tells her TV mom about what goes on (now) at Lovers’ Lane, a tree literally bursts into full color flames as Betty discovers her own sexuality. Then David can’t rouse the firemen from their chairs without uttering “cat,” the only emergency call they know.

As spirits are awakened, the townspeople turn to color, and new challenges face Pleasantville, the movie begins to take a darker turn and pushes the metaphor perhaps a little too hard when signs begin to appear in storefronts insisting on “No Coloreds.” The protest is directed at anything that represents change to the status quo, which is a threat to those who benefit from nothing ever changing. But what about the women like Betty, who has dreams and passions she never considered, as many women did in the 1950s. What about Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels), the soda shop owner, who learns there’s more than just closing the blinds and shutting off the lights when David reveals a full color art book to him? Soon he’s painting a subversive mural on his storefront that effects a response straight out of Do the Right Thing.

Ross set himself a huge technical challenge with this movie. He shot on color film stock and digitally altered everything to black-and-white. At the time, this film held the record for most digital effects in a film. It’s long since been eclipsed and Ross went on to write and direct the first Hunger Games film, but it’s fascinating to see where he learned the process. By removing color rather than adding it, the color elements pop and sizzle in a way they otherwise wouldn’t have. This is one of the most gorgeous palettes of any film of the last twenty years. And Jeannine Oppewall’s production design is perfect simplicity.

In a time when Americans were beginning to lament the decadence of the late 20th century, Pleasantville came as a lovely rejoinder, showing us what the naïve and completely unreal alternative was. Things may have been simpler in the 50s, but truths were obscured and hopes for many were dashed. What seemed perfect on the surface only; masked terrible inequality that was swept under the carpet.

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