The story centers around teenager David (Tobey Maguire), who is addicted
to an old black & white TV show called "Pleasantville." But
his sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) has other plans for the TV tonight.
When the two kids break the remote control, a mysterious repairman (Don
Knotts) shows up and replaces it with a special new model. Before they know
it, David and Jennifer have zapped themselves into the show. Their father
(William H. Macy), their mother (Joan Allen), their house, town, neighbors
everything is . . . pleasant.
Horrified, the kids must live their lives in black and white, in a 1950's
town full of people with black-and-white, 1950's sensibilities. For David,
who is now Bud Parker, the first impulse is to play along, knowing that
if he and Jennifer (now Mary Sue) alter the Pleasantville universe, they
might never get home. But "Mary Sue" does not agree. She sets
out to educate the simple folk about the real world, and she starts by having
sex with the captain of the basketball team in the back seat of his convertible.
Soon all the high school kids try it, with an interesting side effect: Those
who have been "experienced," if you will, start to see (and be)
At this point, the film suffers from its only fault. As more and more
people show up in color, it looks like the message is, "Life is all
about getting some nookie," resulting in a rather sophomoric mood
for a while. But sex is not what's colorizing the Pleasantville residents.
Anyone who makes a personal discovery, who realizes that there's a world
outside, gets, er, fleshed out. The "colored people" begin realizing
they have a choice, that there are things to discover art and literature
and music that is different from anything they've ever seen. Even fire and
rain are new to them. Naturally, those who are still living "in the
pleasant" are outraged. And the mid-20th century in America is played
out all over again the civil rights movement, the women's movement,
the sexual revolution, . . . all re-enacted before our eyes.
There is not a bad actor in this film. Macy has a great moment
at once hilarious and tragic totally lost when his dinner isn't on
the table at the prescribed time. Also notable are Jeff Daniels as the soda
shop owner who discovers art, and the late J.T. Walsh as the mayor determined
to stop the colorization of his community. The color/B&W scenes are
amazing to behold; the film is almost worth seeing just for that. The music
is also very effective, with lots of great oldies like Buddy Holly's "Rave
On," Dave Brubeck's jazz classic "Take Five," and a haunting
rendition of John Lennon's beautiful "Across The Universe," sung
by Fiona Apple.
Ross's vision of a '60s TV show coming to life could have been designed as just a silly diversion, but he has endowed it with a textured mosaic of messages about our culture and values. Pleasantville is a microcosm of the American struggles of this century, struggles that are still going on in many places. But it's also funny and fun, and Ross makes his point without being preachy or looking down at his audience. Bravo. ****½
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