Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Life Wasn't Always Pleasant in Pleasantville

David (Tobey Maguire): They're happy like this.

Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon): No, David. Nobody's happy in a poodle skirt and a sweater set.

When "Pleasantville" premiered on this day in 1998, film critic Roger Ebert wrote that it was "one of the year's best and most original films," but he acknowledged that it "sneaks up on us."

"It begins by kidding those old black–and–white sitcoms like 'Father Knows Best,' " Ebert wrote, "it continues by pretending to be a sitcom itself, and it ends as a social commentary of surprising power."

As Ebert observes, the director, Gary Ross, wrote "Big," in which Tom Hanks played a boy who was trapped in an adult's body.

"Here the characters are trapped in a whole world," Ebert wrote.

I thought it was a clever premise, and it was carried off flawlessly.

At the beginning of the movie, the world was (presumably) the modern one (albeit 15 years ago). A brother and sister (played by Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) broke the remote control while fighting over what to watch on TV, and a mysterious repairman (Don Knotts) showed up with a strange substitute remote control that he gave to Maguire.

After the repairman left, the fight resumed, but the remote transported the two of them to the world of the 1950s, in which everything was black and white.

In their new world, Maguire and Witherspoon had different names and different parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy). They were in the world of the Parkers, the subjects of a TV series in a marathon Maguire's character originally planned to watch. Now, they had to assume the identities of the children in the series.

In the idyllic 1950s world, everything was wholesome — excessively so. For example, in Pleasantville an entire brigade of firemen retrieved a single kitten from a tree. Life was always pleasant in Pleasantville. The temperature was even a constant 72°, and there was never any rain.

Maguire and Witherspoon agreed that it was best not to rock the boat, and that was fine with Maguire's more introverted character, but Witherspoon was too hip for the Leave It To Beaver scene. She had sex (a previously unknown notion in Pleasantville's world, where spouses slept in twin beds) with her boyfriend, and gradually color began to seep into the black–and–white world, sparking all kinds of changes.

Some of those changes were good, like the interest in painting that the change encouraged in malt shop attendant Jeff Daniels. And some weren't so good, like the rift that was created between Allen and Macy.

Then the movie morphed into the social commentary that Ebert mentioned.
"People, people ... I think we all know what's going on here. Up until now everything around here has been, well, pleasant. Recently certain things have become unpleasant. It seems to me that the first thing we have to do is to separate out the things that are pleasant from the things that are unpleasant."

Big Bob (J.T. Walsh)

The town was divided between the traditional black–and–white folks and the radical "colored" folks, which led to a surprising and uplifting conclusion. In his final role, J.T. Walsh, as the town's mayor, and other civic leaders imposed rules that were intended to squelch this spread of color.

For example ... "The only permissible paint colors shall be BLACK, WHITE or GRAY, despite the recent availability of certain alternatives."

It failed, as most attempts to muzzle creativity do, leading to a trial in which Walsh's character, angered by the changes in his town, burst into color himself.

I can think of no better summary for "Pleasantville" than the one offered by Ebert 15 years ago.

" 'Pleasantville' is the kind of parable that encourages us to re–evaluate the good old days and take a fresh look at the new world we so easily dismiss as decadent," he wrote. "Yes, we have more problems. But also more solutions, more opportunities and more freedom."