Pleasantville (1998)

“You want something that’ll put you right in the show.”

It is by no mistake, and quite tellingly so, that Pleasantville – a film about the scales of human emotion and the feelings that we all incur each and every step of the way – is a visual storyboard obsessed with color. Early scenes borrow the “as if” mentality of so many 90’s era movies with teachers who rail against progress and prosperity, painting the now as a hostile place to fear and to resent. This explains why Pleasantville so boldly and brilliantly submits to a black and white and grey world for so long. The more the picture cautiously surrenders itself over to the seasonal palette of Mother Nature, the more honest empathy we share with the people on the screen, regardless of which reality they belong to.

David (Tobey Maguire) obsesses over the 1950’s sitcom “Pleasantville.” He knows every factoid, every dumb piece of trivia, all the names and locations. David wants to spend the night on the living room sofa slurping soda and inhaling chips in front of the family’s Zenith TV set. His Sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) has more salacious plans in mind. Their Mom (Jane Kaczmarek) is set to leave for a weekend getaway with her new boyfriend, which means Jennifer invites the school’s stupid hot jock over for a little one on one study group in human anatomy. David wants to watch a marathon and call in for a $1,000 prize. Jennifer longs to fulfill her lust. Then lightning strikes, a suspicious repairman (Don Knotts) comes knocking almost immediately, and the two combative siblings soon find themselves magically sucked into the titular TV program. It’s a digitized The Wizard of Oz with a prescient fascination for the wonders of technology.

David plays the role of Bud and Jennifer takes on the task of filling Mary Sue’s flats. Their new TV Dad George (William H. Macy) comes home from work, opening the white-picket fence before walking through the front door, taking off his Stetson hat and proclaiming, “Honey, I’m Home.” Betty (Joan Allen) is, ostensibly, quite thrilled at the sound. She’s a homemaker. They sleep in separate beds, have no intimacy, and portray a “normal” 1950’s marriage. One where obligation trumps choice. But with the alien arrivals of David and Jennifer, dutifully playing their part in the script so as not to disrupt the equilibrium, the outsiders bring remarkable change. They’re a positive bacterial infection so pervasive and so sanitized that the slightest illness wrecks havoc on the entire system, awakening the antigens of this make belief world to the point that they recast the supporting and main characters as colorful antibodies to uphold their empirical truths. All the while, the film addresses nationalism, sexism, and it cautiously questions repression. In Pleasantville, the greatest fears emanate from the Joseph McCarthy inspired Mayor Big Bob (J.T. Walsh), a triggered man who delivers his own Patton speech in the good ol’ boy safe zone of the bowling alley. It is, although commercialized through the initially lighthearted sitcom setting, a rather stark depiction of the 50’s Second Red Scare, charging people as communists with little to no evidence. Which is why the use of color in Pleasantville is so intentional at every turn.

Heavily saturated by the influence of media, from the analog to the digital and from the viewpoints of the physical and the spiritual, Pleasantville presents as polite a polemic sermon as possible, sympathizing with its accusers every step of the way. As things change, as hand-holding evolves into passing sex and illiteracy leads to lines out the library doors, the film brilliantly questions what it means to really feel passion. For Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels), the grown man running a boy’s soda shop, he sees color in art. Betty sees it in affection. Jennifer finds it in literature. Bud lassoes it in camaraderie. The color of life is even found by the antagonist in a swell of rage. The sheer genius of a film like Pleasantville is that it allows itself to be wrong from time to time, all while knowing what it means to be unquestionably right.

While it is brought to life by an all white cast, Pleasantville makes sense during a time where nearly every program was entirely populated by Caucasians. And even then, with its fearless script, the film still confronts the separation of the colored and the grey. Gary Ross’ story just adheres to the virtues and the morals and the ethics of filmmaking in the largely forgotten ways only commonly found in a great Frank Capra picture. We root for the every man. We embrace the democratic process. And we challenge the powers that be as a means of protecting our own sovereignty. Pleasantville is a brilliant movie, lovingly crafted and impeccably cast, and while the picture misses out on greatness by ending on a flat note rather than a high one, it’s still one of the most interesting and timeless films of the 20th Century.

“Must be awful lucky to see colors like that.”

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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