Fantasy / Drama / Comedy
Distributed By: New Line Cinema
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
David (Tobey Maguire) is a geeky high school student who wishes he was cool enough to approach the most beautiful girl in school and ask her on a date. His twin sister, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), is quickly becoming the most popular girl in the school. Socially inept and lacking many friends, David is the polar opposite of Jennifer whose obsessions include appearance and popularity. Even David’s home life is difficult - his parents are divorced and his mother is seeing a younger man. David longs for an escape and finds it in his favorite show, Pleasantville, a classic television program about a perfect family living in a perfect town ala Leave it to Beaver.
When a fight over the television remote leaves it destroyed, a television repairman (Don Knotts) mysteriously appears at their front door. Discovering how much David loves Pleasantville, the repairman offers him a gift - a super powered remote which he says has an extra little “oomph” to it. After the repairman leaves, another fight ensues over the remote and an amazing thing occurs. David and Jennifer find themselves magically transported to Pleasantville, taking the place of the main characters Bud and Mary Sue.
Initially shocked at the idea of living inside an old television program, the two teenagers realize that they will have to play along until they can find a way back to the real world. They attempt to assimilate, but it is too much of a culture shock to Jennifer who decides to make a few changes in the way things are done around Pleasantville. Although he stresses that they should not do anything to alter the fantasyland, David inadvertently causes a few changes of their own.
Unfortunately, the few minor changes by the teens cause a ripple effect throughout the town. The once black and white fantasyland begins to see some Technicolor changes appearing around town. Words suddenly appear in books that once contained blank pages. People become bored with the routine of their fantasy world and begin thinking for themselves, becoming more spontaneous.
Although perceived as a good thing by David and Jennifer and the newly transformed citizens of Pleasantville, not everyone views these changes in the same light. As in the real world, the people of Pleasantville do not understand what is happening and are afraid. They begin to allow their differences to separate them. As the town slowly begins to tear itself apart, David and Jennifer must take desperate measures to make things right again in Pleasantville. But is it already too late?
On the surface, the movie Pleasantville seems to be a dramedy about two teens transported to a fantasy world, but below the surface the film is so much more. While in Pleasantville, David and Jennifer realize their full potential. They are no longer stuck in the rut of their lives in the real world and can expand their horizons in this fantasy world, thus finding and embracing their true selves. The message: Never be afraid to take a step outside of your comfort zone - there may be good things waiting for you on the other side.
The movie also tackles racial issues when the people of the town become divided between those who appear in black and white and those who appear in Technicolor. Afraid of that which is different and things they don’t understand, the black and white townspeople discriminate against those in Technicolor. Signs appear declaring, “No Coloreds Allowed,” mirroring our own history. The movie not only exhibits the irrationality behind such a racial divide, but goes a long way in explaining the feelings of both those who discriminate and those who are discriminated against. Funny how neither side can see how similar they are: both feel alienated against, both feel different, both can’t see why the other side can’t understand them.
The film also takes on the phrase, “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Just when David believes his life sucks and wishes that his life could be as simple as that experienced by the characters in Pleasantville, he is transported to that life and discovers that these people experience their own types of problems. No one way of living is perfect. No one style is the “right” style. He learns to be happy with the life he has in the real world.
Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon are terrific as David and Jennifer. They are joined by William H. Macy who is hysterical as George Parker, the stereotypical father figure from the 60’s television shows. George is the father of Bud and Mary Sue (AKA: David and Jennifer) who can’t understand why his family has started behaving so strangely. His first impulse is denial, but eventually, he comes to embrace these changes. Joan Allen is George’s wife, Betty, a woman who is happy in her daily routine until Jennifer shows her that there is more to life than the mundane. Don Knotts is very funny as the TV repairman, but we don’t really see a whole lot of him throughout the film. Jeff Daniels portrays Bill Johnson, the soda shop owner who wants more out of life. An artist at heart, Bill would like nothing more than to create beauty through painting if the town would only let him. For some reason, I truly disliked Jeff Daniels in this role. I thought the storyline of the character was great, but just didn’t think it was a good fit for Daniels. J.T. Walsh is despicable as Pleasantville’s mayor, a man dead set against the changes in his town who is determined to quash any sort of rebellion.
The music of Pleasantville is truly enjoyable. A mix of oldies by artists like Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent and Etta James and older songs in a new style supplied by Fiona Apple, the soundtrack brings the new and old worlds together much the same as the David and Jennifer brought a new style to the old and set ways of Pleasantville. Randy Newman provided the musical score for the film which helped to bring out the unexpressed emotions evolving in the town.
The DVD version of Pleasantville offers up some special features including audio commentary by writer/director Gary Ross, isolated score with commentary by Randy Newman, a storyboard gallery, the original theatrical trailer and a very boring featurette describing behind the scenes work on The Art of Pleasantville. The best special feature on the DVD is the Across the Universe video by Fiona Apple which I found to be very artistic and highly enjoyable. Inserting the DVD into your computer will gain you access to Script to Screen with Storyboards which allows you to access any scene in the film and print any section, up to the minute cast and crew information and more.
As for me, I would simply skip the extras - they aren’t all that enjoyable - and watch the film twice. The first time, watch it for the enjoyment of it all. The second time, pay special attention to the thematic aspects of the film like the book burnings, the “No Colored Signs,” the rioting, the silencing of free thought and compare it to our world. In other words, enjoy the film as a fantasy story with dramatic and comedic undertones, then enjoy it for the story behind the story which features political and social statements about the world we live in. Either way, you are going to enjoy Pleasantville and believe Gary Ross to be a genius.