Pleasantville is just the swellest 90s film you might not have heard of. It is an intelligent, tongue-in-cheek dramedy that falls somewhere between the suffocating, controlled future (in this case, the past) of Fahrenheit 451 and Buñuelian surrealism, with a much tighter narrative than anything in his catalogue. With a giant heart and profound complexity, Pleasantville is even more relevant than when it was released seventeen years ago. If you have not seen it or have not seen it recently, seek it out, you will be pleasantly surprised.
The story follows David and Jennifer (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon), a brother and sister who are magically transported by a TV repairman, played hilariously by Don Knotts, into the fictional world of Pleasantville, a classic 50s sitcom that David spends most of his time in front of in order to avoid any meaningful interaction with his high-school peers. His sister appears to be the antithesis of his nerdy persona: a cool, popular girl who smokes, has sex, and does not care what other people think (except in private she cares just as much as everyone else). As Jennifer, who later becomes “Mary-Sue” in the sitcom world, Witherspoon gives an immaculate and compelling performance in one of her earliest starring roles, showing off the versatility and range of which she is capable. Maguire is great too as he brings a vulnerable likability to David/”Bud” and the rest of the cast is equally great, anchored by a touching performance by Joan Allen, who plays Bud’s mother, Betty, in the Pleasantville universe and George (William H. Macy) as his sitcom father.
David and Jennifer soon realize they are trapped as Bud and Mary-Sue in this wholesomely exaggerated bizzaro-world, where holding hands is the sexual peak of cleanly groomed teens, such as Skip (a young Paul Walker) and Margaret (Marley Shelton), adults such as their TV mother do not even know what sex is, and David’s boss Bill (Jeff Daniels) at the local diner is unable to make the smallest of decisions that do not adhere to the formulaic monotony of his scripted life. The teens proceed to turn the drab, black-and-white landscape on its head by alerting their peers that there are places that exist outside of Pleasantville (“there are some places that the road doesn’t go in a circle, there are some places where the road just keeps going”), transforming their empty books and spoon fed school “knowledge” into classically raw and imaginative literary works by Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger, and D.H. Lawrence, and by causing a sexual awakening at “Lover’s Lane”.
The scene around their black-and-white world and the characters themselves slowly begin to appear in color symbolizing the discovery of a truer nature and a richer understanding of life’s possibilities. It is a brilliant technique that the film uses to shoot in color and drain only certain areas of the film stock in post-production. It works aesthetically and never feels too much like an overused gimmick, although it easily could have felt that way. Naturally, when the colors burst, it is the white old men who expect towering columns of perfectly stacked pancakes from their wives and a kiss on the cheek after they say “honey, I’m home” that are most adamant to stay filtered black-and-white. They all have monosyllabic names such as Jim, Jeff, Jay, John, Jack, Bob, Roy, and Gus, which illuminates the simplistic system they have created for themselves; they have convinced themselves that their system is pleasant. Thankfully it never portrays these men as fully evil though; it doesn’t blame them directly, but merely suggests that these characters are also tragic, hardheaded victims blinded by the tradition they have bought into and until now has gone about undisturbed.
At it’s heart it is a movie that both satirizes and spoofs the sparkly-clean suburban stereotype of the 1950s and uses it as its canvas in which to tell a story about the bonding of a brother and sister who begin in an adversarial relationship, breaks down the toxically implicit patriarchal contract lurking just beneath era’s glossy facade, and warns against the dangers of nostalgia and the romanticization of the past. It is also extremely funny throughout and is supported by a well-written script and well paced plotting. At its most emotional and most surreal David is forced to cover his TV mom in black-and-white makeup so her newfound color will not be revealed to the black-and-white characters trying to uphold and cling to their flawed society, which is a very topical allegory in light of Caitlyn Jenner’s recent revelation of her own colors. The soundtrack accompaniment is wonderful, made up of mostly 50s rock-ability classics such as Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula”, which give lightness to the sometimes melodramatic tone, but also adding an “Across the Universe” cover by Fiona Apple to connect the dots between the not-so-different eras of the film.
If there is fault to be found with Pleasantville it comes in the slightly heavy-handed melodrama found in a couple of scenes during the film’s third act, but for the most part the film does a fantastic job of avoiding such sensationalism of which a lesser film would have so easily have fallen victim to.
Pleasantville is nothing short of a late 90s masterpiece by Gary Ross (most well-known for the first Hunger Games) which is overshadowed by the admittedly more subtle, sarcastic, and superior American Beauty, which also looks at the suburban veneer and won Best Picture just one year later. If you want an interesting and complex film or if you are just looking for some good laughs and pleasantly over-the-top acting Pleasantville is a 90s throwback worth the watch.