Pleasantville

“Pleasantville” begins pleasantly enough with a commercial for one of those retro-cable channels like “T.V. Land.” Ah, the good old days. “Father Knows Best,” “Leave it to Beaver,” I Married Joan,” and everyone’s perennial favorite, “Pleasantville.”


pleasantvilleIt’s “Father Knows Best” without the attitude, a congenial black and white half-hour that always begins and ends on an upbeat note. You can depend on father George (William H. Macy) walking through the door every day after work, hang up his coat, and exclaim, “Honey, I’m Home.”

The honey in question is his content wife Betty (Joan Allen),who always greets him with a martini and a smile, and has dinner heating up in the stove. Daughter Mary Sue is dating the high school basketball star, while son Bud has just won first place in the school science fair. Yep, it’s a perfect world.

Unlike the one that “Pleasantville” fan David (Tobey Maguire) leads in his modern day, Technicolor world. David’s not a geek, but he does have problems connecting with the girl of his dreams at school. David’s sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) has no problem at all connecting with the opposite sex. She’s a tramp, and she and everyone else knows it.

So it comes as no surprise to anyone when Jennifer invites one of the high school studs to her house to watch a concert on MTV while her mother is away for the weekend. David’s only concern is that he get to watch the “Pleasantville” marathon. At stake is a $1,000 trivia game prize, and no one knows more about “Pleasantville” than David.

When David and Jennifer fight over the remote control, they accidentally break it. Before David has a chance to fix it, a television repairman (Don Knotts) shows up at their front door with a new and improved remote control. How strange is that?

Things get even stranger when David and Jennifer fight over the new remote, and zap themselves into the “Pleasantville” program, taking the place of Mary Sue and Bud. “Twilight Zone” time.

After receiving a cryptic message from the T.V. Repairman on the television, David immediately sizes up their situation and warns Jennifer that they must abide by the rules of the show or face unforseen consequences. David has no problem playing along. He knows every episode by heart.

Poor Jennifer. She has to wing it, and is reluctant to carry on the charade until she meets high school basketball star Skip (Paul Walker). At first, David and Jennifer find “Pleasantville” pleasant.

Then Jennifer upsets the apple cart by asking Skip up to Lover’s Lane for a little hanky panky. “You can pin me anytime, or maybe I should pin you,” Jennifer purrs as she teaches the basketball player a new kind of dribbling.

Then it begins. One by one, piece by piece, the black and white citizens and surroundings of “Pleasantville” take on vibrant color. At first it’s just a rose, then some lipstick. As the citizens of “Pleasantville” begin to come alive and think for themselves, they evolve into colorful characters.

As written and directed by Gary Ross, who co-wrote “Big” and “Dave,” “Pleasantville” is filled with colorful characters, even when they are in black and white. “Pleasantville” is that rare Hollywood hybrid: a message movie that is actually entertaining. “Pleasantville” is much more than just entertaining. It’s a marvel to behold, a unique and dazzling film that creates an alternate universe and then sucks you right into it.

Ross creates magic both in front of and behind the camera. “Pleasantville” is his debut as a director, and Ross has obviously been paying attention. The film is as assured as any I have seen this year.

There’s not a bad performance in the film, and Ross and his team of movie magicians do the unthinkable: they use special effects to compliment the script rather than to hide the fact that they didn’t have a good script to begin with. That allows the wonderful cast plenty of breathing room to deliver some sensational performances.

Young Tobey Maguire is a standout as David. There is so much understanding in his eyes. His scenes with Joan Allen show real depth and maturity. The two shared the screen together in Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm.”

Allen is breathtaking as Betty, the all purpose, dutiful mom who wants more. I have always liked Allen in everything she has done. She delivers a delicate, emotionally satisfying portrait of a woman who blossoms right in front of our eyes. Just watch her expressions as she discusses sex for the first time with Reese Witherspoon. You just know it’s going to lead to something more daring.

Witherspoon is marvelous as Jennifer, who slowly begins to feel comfortable in Mary Sue’s clothing and skin. There’s a sweet earnestness to her performance, and it’s a pleasure to watch her character grow. By the time she makes her final decision, you know it’s from the heart and not just the whim of some flighty teenager.

What 1950’s show about teenagers would be complete with a soda shop and the guy who runs it. Jeff Daniels is simply wonderful as Mr. Johnson, the reliable proprietor who finds himself lost when his routine is disrupted. Johnson comes alive when he decides to take advantage of the new found colors to pursue his love of painting. It’s a very nice, warm performance.

William H. Macy shines as George. Macy always shines, but he’s especially glowing here as a man who doesn’t want his life to change. He likes routine, and seems perplexed when he arrives home one evening to an empty house. No martini. No dinner. No Betty.

“Pleasantville” is about change, good and bad. It’s about growth and discovery, and how some fear those very ideas. Ross’ script deals with weighty issues (the black and white townspeople begin to shun the “colored” townspeople), but he delivers them in an entertaining fashion.

Instead of feeling like you’re being preached to, you admire Ross for trying to say something important without standing up on a soapbox.

The technical credits are superior, especially John Lindley’s accurate photography, Jeannine Oppewall’s retro production design, Chris Watts’ clever visual effects, and Randy Newman’s playful musical score. They all combine to help create the perfect illusion.

I was very impressed with “Pleasantville.” It works on so many different levels, but most of all, it does exactly what movies are supposed to do: It entertained me. It took me to a different place and time and showed me things I haven’t seen before. It did it with convincing characters and lots of human emotion and heart. That makes it one of the best films of the year.

PAINTING THE TOWN IN “PLEASANTVILLE”

PLEASANTVILLE

Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, J.T. Walsh, Marley Shelton, Don Knotts, Paul Walker in a film directed by Gary Ross. Rated PG-13. 124 Min.

LARSEN RATING: $8



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