Directed by Gary Ross. Starring Don Knotts, J.t. Walsh, William H. Macy, Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels, Reese Witherspoon, Tobey Maguire. (1998, PG-13, 123 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 30, 1998
Pleasantville is indeed a technical marvel to behold, rich with sophisticated computer technology that deftly combines full-color and black-and-white images all in one shot. However, the movie's simplistic storyline does not match its stunning visual accomplishments: Pleasantville's story is drawn from a palette that's strictly limited to black-and-white. Terrific performances by all the key cast members also help mask the fact that the movie's central hook -- two Nineties teens who are trapped in the staid, colorless world of a Fifties family sitcom and infect the said town, Pleasantville, with all sorts of newfangled, daring notions about self-expression and self-fulfillment -- is never developed beyond its obvious symbolism and ramifications. In fact, the only obvious note that the film surprisingly failed to include would be that of Cyndi Lauper power-ballading about seeing “true colors shining through.” And even then, something like the Stones' “She Comes in Colors” might have been more appropriate and certainly more literal-minded for Joan Allen's scene as the Mom who discovers the joy of masturbatory sex (and though discreet, it's the one surprising sequence in an otherwise solidly PG-13 film). Pleasantville is too content to settle for the same kind of easy escapism that its modern protagonists long for. David (Maguire) is hooked on reruns of his favorite Fifties TV show, Pleasantville, as an obvious refuge from the real-world pressures of his parents' unhappy divorce and the steady reminders of a future with low job expectations, safe sex precautions, and bleak projections of famine and ecological devastation. During a tug of war with his twin sister Jennifer (Witherspoon), the remote control breaks and an oddball TV repairman (the serendipitously cast Don Knotts) mysteriously appears on their doorstep to provide them with a new zapper that strangely transports them into the actual world of Pleasantville. This alternate universe is a Fifties time warp in living black-and-white: firemen only exist to rescue cats from trees and all basketballs shot by varsity ballplayers automatically swoosh through the hoop. When David and Jennifer introduce sex, emotion, and spontaneity to Pleasantville, the town comes apart at the seams. First someone's tongue turns red, then others start to notice flashes of color, words suddenly appear in previously blank books, and a tree bursts into flames (the “burning bush” coincides with the discovery of orgasm). Next thing you know, folks are listening to Dave Brubeck and admiring Picasso and D.H. Lawrence. A girl seduces her boyfriend with a red apple (really!) and Mom's not there with dinner on the table when Dad comes home from work. J.T. Walsh in his last screen role leads the town in a mob reaction to the “Coloreds” who have invaded town. The last third of the movie devolves into too much illogical detail about the town's reactionary response. (If hate is as strong an emotion as love, why aren't these rioters also shedding their placid black-and-white exteriors for unsuppressible color combos?) Yet it feels curmudgeonly to dwell on the film's dim plotting when the film's performances are all so strong and endearing and the sight of a smudge of color breaking through the gray pancake makeup is so breathtaking to behold. First-time director Ross is an old hand at this kind of magical adult parable, having scripted Big and Dave. To have selected such a technically difficult project for his first directing job must say a lot about his commitment. This time out, his characters get to see the roses bloom. Next film he does, I bet they'll stop to smell them too.