Pleasantville is, of all things, a pleasant little film. It asks the question, what would the world be like if everything was perfect? And then it uses that, not only as a launchpad for social commentary on contemporary values, but as an examination on the roles of passion and change in our lives. Though inconsistent and obvious at times, the film manages to be elegant and subtle in others, and makes for a pleasant time at the movies.
Pleasantville is the name of a stereotypical 50’s black and white sitcom, where everything is, well, pleasant. Mom and Dad have all the answers to even the toughest problems in this small town. There’s no crime, fewer worries, and even the firemen only have to rescue cats from trees. In short, it’s about as far from reality as you can get.
But it’s the reality 90s teen David (Tobey Maguire) yearns for. A hopeless outcast in the increasingly frightening real world, David longs for the “perfect” existence in his favorite old sitcom. His slutty twin sister, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), simply thinks he’s nuts. She’d rather watch MTV than some moth-eaten rerun. However, when their television remote breaks, it looks like neither of them will have their way.
That is, until a mysterious TV repairman (Don Knotts) shows up. He gives David a gift: a magical remote which zaps David and his sister into the world of Pleasantville. There they take the place of Bud and Mary Sue, the kids of the Parker family, including salesman dad George (William H. Macy), and the perfect housewife, Betty (Joan Allen).
But David and Jennifer soon discover that “pleasant” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it’s somewhat repetitive and boring. The people of Pleasantville have no idea what to do outside the constructs of the various episodes. In fact, there’s literally nothing outside of Pleasantville (which apparently curves back around upon itself). But, when David and Jennifer introduce their 90s sensibilities into this 50s world, things begin to change in Pleasantville…something which has never happened before.
Pleasantville utilizes an ingenious technique to demonstrate these changes. As passion, in any form, begins to creep into the black-and-white world of Pleasantville, slowly objects and people erupt in color. At first, the changes are minor, but as the citizenry of Pleasantville learn of the possibilities of change, color springs up all around.
Toward the end, the film gets a bit heavy-handed in its overall “message”, but, along the way, it delivers several poignant and memorable scenes. The film has potential in its middle passages as it moves beyond simple television satire, and into an exploration of innocence and potential. However, it then clumsily segues into a ill-conceived tone nearly as preachy as the one it tries to condemn.
One of the more serious problems with the film is with its two leads. Both Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon are, well, bland. And when you’re forced to compare them with a purposefully “bland” world, the comparison doesn’t hold as much weight as it should. By contrast, many of the Pleasantville characters (including Joan Allen, J.T. Walsh as the town mayor, and Jeff Daniels as the local malt shop guy) are much more colorful…even in black and white.
If you can manage it, try to avoid the trailers and advertisements for the movie, as they give away most of the film’s surprises. Not that it’s much of a spoiler (since you can see most of the plot developments coming from miles away), but the few moments of discovery in this film are best if they’re fresh.
Overall, Pleasantville is a nice film with a few nice moments, and a generally nice case. But it is obviously striving to be more than “nice”, and to achieve a depth of meaning which it never reaches.