tek's rating: ½

Pleasantville (PG-13)
IMDb; Rotten Tomatoes; TV Tropes; Warner Bros.; Wikipedia

Caution: spoilers!

When I first reviewed this movie, after seeing it for the second time, I put it under "art films." Some time later, I considered moving it to "quirky" or "dramedy" or "fantasy." At the time, I decided to keep it under "art films," because... it seems kind of like a small, unconventional movie, but definitely one with a sort of message or social commentary. I really think it's brilliantly made, and the only major reason (other than the fantasy aspect of the plot) I'd have not to call it an art film is that I find it much more entertaining, fun, funny, enjoyable, than the average art film. It's fairly escapist, whereas many of the films I'd label "art" tend to be fairly bleak, and certainly more based in reality than this (or most Hollywood movies). Even so, I think the use of fantasy here definitely helps illuminate reality fairly well.... And anyway, considering "art film" and "entertaining film" to be mutually exclusive terms does an inexcusable disservice to both descriptions of movies. There's no reason an entertaining movie can't be considered art, and vice versa. However... years later, when I started a new category for dystopian films, I decided to finally move it there. I'd never been entirely happy with calling it an art film, and I think "dystopian" is a bit more accurate (even if it's not nearly as bleak as most such films). And I also think it's kind of appropriate since I use gray as the background color for this section....

Well, the first time I saw the movie, years ago, I expect I must have taped it off TV. And I watched it, and thought it was good, but didn't feel the need to see it again, so I didn't keep it. Then eventually I got it on DVD, out of the $5.50 bin at Walmart. I wanted to see it again. And I wanted to review it. I don't really remember quite how I felt about it the first time I saw it, but watching it anew, it soon started exceeding my memories/expectations. Before long, it greatly exceeded them. I should also mention that I've owned the soundtrack for years now, I suppose since I first saw the movie, or maybe even before. I don't remember. Maybe... it was after I first saw Fiona Apple's "Across the Universe" video. Whatever... it's one of my very favorite albums, every track is really great, IMHO.

Anyway. It starts out in the late 1990s, presumably the same year the movie was released (1998). There's this high school kid named David (Tobey Maguire), who's a bit of a geek, and obsessed with this stereotypical 1950s black & white TV series called "Pleasantville." And he's got a twin sister named Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), who's nothing like him. Very cool, kind of a "bad girl." One night, David is planning on watching a Pleasantville marathon, and then entering a trivia contest about the show. But Jennifer has a date coming over, and wants to watch MTV with the guy. So they fight over the remote, and it gets broken. And the TV can only be operated by remote. Just then, a TV repairman (played by Don Knotts) shows up at the door. Impressed by David's knowledge of the show, he gives them a special remote, which David and Jennifer again fight over... and they end up getting stuck in Pleasantville.

Yep, they're now in 1958, and they and the whole world are in black & white. And they are now characters on the show, Bud and Mary Sue Parker. Of course they both want to get home right away, but the TV repairman appears on their TV, briefly, and is upset about their wanting to go home, and leaves. So, for the time being, there's nothing they can do except play along. Jennifer's seriously upset about this, but David... well, this is a bit more his milieu, of course. He knows everyone and everything in town, and it's all very pleasant....

But, perhaps a little too pleasant, in a Walgreens ad sort of way. Like, the high school basketball team is undefeated... because it seems to be impossible for them to miss the basket. And then... well, it's rather convenient that these people live in a sitcom, because there are things that simply wouldn't make sense in the real world. Like the fact that no one seems to have any sort of capacity for independent thought. They're all just living their lives according to some script, not that they have any idea about that. They can't cope with anything unfamiliar happening, they just don't know how to react. The local soda shop owner, Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels), doesn't know how to deviate from the normal routine when Bud doesn't show up on time for his shift at work. The fire department doesn't do anything but rescue cats, since it's impossible for dangerous fires to break out. The books in the library are completely blank. There's nothing outside of Pleasantville, because all the roads go in circles. Hell, they've never even seen rain. And of course, no one's ever heard of sex (see, kids on 50s TV shows don't have to actually come from anywhere). The most intense any relationship ever seems to get is holding hands.

Well, Jennifer, as Mary Sue, soon changes that. She goes out on a date with a guy named Skip, and introduces him to the concept of sex. It doesn't take long for that concept to spread around, and at one point she even has to explain it to her fictional mother, Betty (Joan Allen). David really just wants to avoid changing anything, especially as it seems that introducing any sort of deviation from the 50s sensibility of this fictional world can have unpredictable effects, such as the basketball team losing a game for the first time ever. And books start filling up. A tree catches fire. Here and there, little bits of color start appearing. In fact, in one scene that I found particularly inspired, Betty finds she has color in her face, and dares not show herself to her husband, George (William H. Macy). So David/Bud uses Betty's makeup to cover up the color. The makeup hasn't yet turned to color, so it makes her look black & white again. Gosh, I hope you can appreciate the backwardness of that as much as I do....

Meanwhile, Bill Johnson wants to become a painter, which Bud encourages, and the new colors available certainly play into that whole theme (or perhaps it's the other way round, I dunno). Though there's also the problem of Bill and Betty developing feelings for one another, while she herself is having a hard time reconciling her own desire for change with her reluctance, embarrassment and guilt about all the changes. But eventually, she'll realize and accept that she is pleased with the changes in her world and in herself. And then, David clearly starts to get to like some of the changes, and being stuck here becomes more enjoyable when a girl named Margaret (who, on the show, is supposed to like some guy called Whitey) takes an interest in him. But then, at one point, Jennifer wonders why she's still in black & white, when she's had more sex than anyone in town, and David says maybe it's not just about the sex. (Clearly, I'd say it's more about a state of mind.) The book-phobic girl will even start to enjoy reading, even choose it over a date one night. The next morning, she'll find herself in color. As will many young people in town, after a rainstorm that night, and then, not insignificantly, a rainbow. Though David's still in black & white.

Of course, not everyone in town takes kindly to the changes going on. The mayor, Bob, makes Bud and Mary Sue's well-respected father George a member of the Pleasantville chamber of commerce, and gets him to help try to turn the town against all these changes. Eventually, segregation, riots, and book burnings will ensue ("coloreds" is a rather amusing pun/biting, if heavy-handed, metaphor). Well, okay, so some of the metaphors or allusions are a bit blatant... I mean, Margaret giving Bud an apple? C'mon. And yet... it works. I think it all works pretty well. Of course, the mayor will disapprove of some of the extremes people take... but the measures he proposes to counter the changes are still... well, I suppose I'll let other sites draw allusions to Nazis, or what have you....

Eventually the TV repairman returns, and seems to be upset about the changes being made to the show, and wants the kids to return home, but David doesn't want to. He's really coming to see that the world needs some color (or some such metaphor). And then, when he defends Betty from some teenagers, he finds himself in color. He even becomes something of a revolutionary leader. And stands trial, alongside Bill. And, well... I dunno what else to say. As many metaphors as there may be for any sort of historical... unpleasantness... I think, ultimately, the movie can be taken pretty much at face value. We all need some color in our lives. It's maybe not such a bad thing not knowing what's going to happen next. And, if nothing else... the film just leaves you feeling pretty good about the world.


dystopian index
favorite movies