Pleasantville overcomes sermonizing with intelligent, uncynical story, appealing cast

Remember that scene in Schindler’s List in which Oskar Schindler watches a single little girl wearing a pink coat, surrounded by a stark black and white world? Well, the good folks in Hollywood liked that effect so much, they gave it its own movie, and it’s called Pleasantville, a comic fable about life in the fifties colliding with the attitudes of the nineties.

The plot is pretty simple: a pair of modern teenagers, products of the dysfunctional nineties, get zapped into “Pleasantville,” a cheerful black and white television show in which father knows best and problems are solved within half an hour. Unfortunately, these youngsters bring seeds of change to the sitcom universe, mainly of the sexual and intellectual kind. As the people of Pleasantville begin to change and question their beliefs, the black and white world slowly blossoms into brilliant technicolor, one person at a time.

There are some basic similarities to The Truman Show, but despite issues of fiction and reality, this is no paranoid fantasy. Instead, Pleasantville is more along the lines of Forrest Gump, a heartwarming epic of American history, accelerating the changes of the last few decades into a story of change and repression. As the bland but cheerful people of the sitcom world begin to change, the forces of conservatism (represented by the patriarchal Chamber of Commerce) work to change things back to normal.

Pleasantville’s ensemble cast is strong and appealing, led by Tobey Maguire (The Ice Storm) and Reese Witherspoon (Freeway, Fear) as the two modern teens. Even their lives are withdrawn from reality, as one escapes into television and the other into mindless sex and parties to avoid the problems of modern life. Their sitcom parents are played by two terrific actors, Joan Allen (Nixon, Face/Off) and William H. Macy (Fargo). Joan Allen in particular is very strong as the sitcom mom who begins to look for more in life, and she’s joined by soda jerk-turned-artist Jeff Daniels. Rounding out the cast as the gregarious bad guy is the late character actor J. T. Walsh, plus the legendary Don Knotts in a wonderful cameo. The great thing about some of these performances is the way the characters develop from flat, stock sitcom characters into more or less fully-rounded people with individual passions and desires.

The man at the center of Pleasantville is producer-director-writer Gary Ross, who also wrote the comic fables Big and Dave. Like both of those movies, Pleasantville is smart and very funny. Here, Ross demonstrates a natural aptitude for direction, and this movie has a real flair for it, especially in its ambitious visuals; there are more special effects shots in this movie that in Titanic. Ross has also worked as a speechwriter for President Clinton, which helps to explain why Pleasantville becomes a movie with such a strong political message, as the conflict between the forces of change and repression becomes an allegory for the changes of the post-war era.

However, I still felt dissatisfied by the movie’s blatant subtext; as the old studio mogul Louis B. Mayer is quoted as saying, “If you want to send a message, go to Western Union.” The overt political statement central to Pleasantville’s agenda is fascinating but overstated, and may be the movie’s weakest element. As soon as the normal, black and white people start discriminating against the new, “colored” people, you can almost hear Ross hammering his message into your head.

Nonetheless, Pleasantville is meant to be a fantasy, and a pretty charming one at that. The movie succeeds on several levels, not just as a satire or an allegory but also as a technical achievement, another movie successfully using special effects to tell a story instead of making bigger explosions. Combining all of these feats into a single movie must have been quite a juggling act, and director Ross has managed to pull it off very well. Pleasantville is no masterpiece, but it is intelligent, uncynical fun.

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