Ealasaid/ November 6, 1998/ Movie Reviews and Features

Originally written for The Occidental.

Once upon a time…

There was a brother and a sister, who were twins but as different as could be. David (Toby Maguire) escaped the awful real world by watching a fifties TV show, “Pleasantville,” whose perfect town and swell, perky citizens made “Leave it to Beaver” look like a gritty drama. Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), on the other hand, was ultra-hip and
terribly popular.  When a strange TV repairman gave them an odd remote control, they were zapped into the black-and-white world of “Pleasantville.” Trapped, the twins found themselves cast in the roles of Bud and Mary Sue Parker in a suburban utopia where the home team always won, books had no words, and nobody ever wondered why things are so perfect. Then Jennifer began spreading her nineties attitude, and things started to happen in living color…

is a fairytale, from its opening “once upon a time…” to the closing credits.  But it’s a modern one, and like The Truman Show, it’s filled with wonderful acting and gorgeous cinematography. Our sibling heroes both discover new things about themselves and life in general as the film  progresses, and it shows. Likewise, the characters of the suddenly-real television show go from silly to touching as we realize that they are real people behind their pleasant facades.   William  H. Macy is brilliant as Mr. Parker.  His fatherly character is optimistic, caring, and surprisingly innocent, and watching him deal with the changes his world undergoes is fascinating. Joan Allen, as his wife, lets us see inside her character’s head as she makes the transition from perfect housewife to self-aware woman.

Pleasantville captures the look of a fifties TV show perfectly, from the perfectly coiffed housewife presenting her husband with a martini on his arrival home to the letter sweaters the high school athletes wear. Skies are free of clouds, the weather is wonderful… until things begin to change.  Likewise, the music fits, and as the town gradually swings away from mere pleasantness, Elvis and Dave Brubeck begin playing on the local burger joint’s jukebox. The original score is also excellent, running under the surface of the film and enhancing rather than distracting from the images before the audience’s eyes.

Any film which includes the colorization of a black and white world has to have good visual effects, and Pleasantville sure does.  As the characters would say, they’re swell.   Color and grayscale shades appear side-by-side, in flawless detail from the first red rose to a stunning drive through a gray forest with pink petals blowing in the wind, and finally to one “colored” woman’s attempt to cover her disgraceful shading with her old, gray and black makeup.  The colors are startlingly beautiful, and the juxtaposition of brilliant color and the lack thereof makes the audience aware of the beauty that surrounds us every day.  As an additional bonus, when the owner of the local burger joint discovers a talent for painting in the newfound colors, the murals and canvases he does are very good, rather than the faux-paintings films so often use.

The one failing of Pleasantville is its tendency to be a bit heavy-handed with its message — but then again, it is a fairytale.  Who criticizes Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm for waving their messages around (do what your parents tell you, be good, and watch out for trolls)? Pleasantville asks us to suspend our disbelief and enter into its world, where life is magical and anything can happen.

So what’s the bottom line? If you like films like The Truman Show, Pleasantville is right up your alley.  It’s also a great trip for those who love old shows like “I Love Lucy” and “Leave it to
Beaver.”  But if you’re looking for action or blood and gore, go elsewhere.

Share this Post