American movies view innocence as a state of grace: Kids brim over with unsullied joy, the past is untarnished with modern knowledge and complications. If only we could stay that way forever! I feel like some commie subversive when I suggest that innocence is a prison—a state of ignorance, not only of sexuality, but of the millions of choices one might make in life. The new movie Pleasantville not only agrees with me, it does so with wit, perception, and a lush visual style.
directed by Gary Ross
with Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels, William H. Macy
starts Friday, theater TBA
Pleasantville is named after a fictional Ozzie-and-Harriet-flavored TV show from the 1950s. Every night, David (Tobey Maguire) settles on the couch with a bag of chips and happily recites dialogue along with the characters. His popular and worldly sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) couldn't care less. On the night of a Pleasantville marathon, she wants to watch a concert on MTV with her date; David plans to win a trivia contest that follows the marathon. As they struggle over a suspicious remote control left by a suspicious TV repairman (Don Knotts), a sudden power surge transports them into the black-and-white world of Pleasantville, where they take the place of Bud and Mary Sue, obedient children of George (William H. Macy) and Betty (Joan Allen). Soon David's and Jennifer's self-awareness infects the town of Pleasantville like a virus. As residents find themselves opening to the possibilities of change and sexuality, they begin to break into color, setting off a backlash of social pressure and prejudice.
What makes Pleasantville more than just a muddled allegory about sexually transmitted diseases is that the transformation into color isn't just the result of getting laid—it's an awakening of the self. Pleasantville, the town, is both perfect and static: The Pleasantville High basketball team sinks every shot it makes, the fire department has never had a fire to put out, and all routines are followed with relentless precision. When David doesn't do all of Bud's closing tasks at Mr. Johnson's malt shop, Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels) shows up at Bud's door in a zombie-like stupor, incapable of independent thought. When David shows him a book on the history of art, it opens Mr. Johnson's mind the way sexuality has stimulated some of the Pleasantville teens. He begins to paint cubist Santas and Cezanne-inspired doughnut trays, sending ripples of dismay among the townspeople. When he paints a fauvist nude on his malt shop window, the reaction of the mob evokes everything from the riots at Stravinsky's Rite of Spring to the Mapplethorpe controversy. Soon the community divides into normal folk and "coloreds," who are barred from using the same stores as their gray-scaled neighbors. The political dimension of the story is low-key but resonant (though it's questionable how African Americans are going to feel about their history being used to give weight to the oppression of blond bobby-soxers).
The cast of Pleasantville couldn't be better. Macy, Allen, Daniels, and the recently deceased J.T. Walsh are exquisitely bland. Witherspoon shows a surprising spark, and Maguire grounds the movie with an easy, relaxed charisma. For once, special effects are wholly in the service of the storyline. A deep red rose against a richly shadowed black-and-white background is more than pretty, there's an otherworldly beauty to it. The movie makes some missteps, particularly in the latter half. It's never clear just how aware the TV characters are of their artificial existence; social rules get broken throughout the movie, but gender roles are curiously reinforced at the end; and a climactic trial scene falls flat because it never really hones in on what the movie is about. But it's a pleasure to see a film that suffers from trying too much rather than not enough.
The Truman Show got trumpeted to the skies for the mere presence of an idea, even when that idea—something vague about free will—was left limp and unexplored. Pleasantville not only brings some serious ideas to life, it's a lot more entertaining while it does so. The movie doesn't just make fun of the repression of the 1950s; David and Jennifer have their own journeys to color, in which they discover the ways they've hidden from conflict and change. To be fully human, you have to risk pain and failure. This is at odds with the equally human desire to be safe. The greatest art captures irresolvable contradictions in human nature. This comedy about two teenagers who get sucked into a TV show touches on greatness.