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Pleasantville charms; on the visual level, it dazzles. Half comedy, half fable, it flips the premise of The Truman Show, presenting, instead of a man trapped in a TV world he thinks is real but discovers to be a colossal fake, a TV world made up of potential Trumans who need an outsider to help transform the fake into reality. What distinguishes Pleasantville, however, is the device used to show the transformation: the slow-ripple change from black-and-white film to color. It's one of the most ingenious visual devices ever conceived for a mainstream movie, and certainly makes for one of the most inviting preview trailers in a long while.
The plot contrivance for this effect is acceptable, if a little clunky. Introverted teenager David (Tobey Maguire), a divorce child of the '90s, immerses himself in reruns of Pleasantville, a '50s TV show somewhere between "Leave it to Beaver" and "The Donna Reed Show." For him, it offers an escape from his less-than-idyllic real life to a haven where the weather is always sunny, everybody is gainfully employed and lives in a spick-and-span house with a white picket fence, and the main characters enjoy the kind of secure, comfortable family life he's never known. His obsession with Pleasantville borders on the pathological, or, in the eyes of his sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), the merely pathetic. But thanks to the intercession of a cheerfully spooky TV repairman (Don Knotts), both sibs find themselves magically transported into the black-and-white world of David's favorite show and thrust into the starring roles.
Brother and sister at first respond differently--and characteristically--to their predicament. While David literally tries to keep the show going as scripted, it doesn't take Jennifer long to rebel. Appalled by the sanitized blankness of Pleasantville life, she undertakes to teach the townspeople a thing or two, beginning with sex and progressing to the larger issue of what lies outside the Pleasantville universe. As the semi-robotic citizens gradually come to life, splashes of color begin to permeate the black-and-white world--not all at once or to everyone, but by steps and degrees, delightful in their unpredictability. The process is best represented in the paintings of Jeff Daniels' inarticulate soda-shoppe proprietor, whose self-expression increases in richness and assurance as his palate of colors expands. But just as you think you know where the story's going, it takes a darker turn and the allegory deepens, as the conservative forces of Pleasantville, led by the town mayor (the late J.T. Walsh, in his last role), attempt to check the changes as they would an infectious disease. Not surprisingly, it falls to David to resolve what his sister started, and in so doing, confront the huge question mark he spends most of the movie evading: what should he stand up for, change or continuity?
The answer is obvious, and writer-director Gary Ross can be fairly accused of stacking the deck in making the static utopia of Pleasantville seem not only narrow but also inane and empty--certainly not in the least desirable, even when contrasted with the more unattractive features of the '90s in the opening sequence. Pleasantville is moreover, when one comes down to it, a very weird and potentially unsettling world of doubtful reality. Perhaps as a consequence, the movie is guilty of certain logical gaps and inconsistencies; for instance, how do the Pleasantvillers know what colors are when they begin to appear?
But these are mere quibbles next to the two things Pleasantville gets absolutely, stunningly right. The first is the visual effects. To describe them further, much as I'd like to, would diminish the surprise and sheer pleasure of watching then unfold; it suffices to say that this is without a doubt one of the most visually entrancing movies you'll see all year.
The second is the acting, the two standouts being Maguire, who gives a beautifully nuanced performance as the film's emotional center, and Joan Allen as his (Pleasantville) mother: independently and together, they account for nearly all of the movie's most poignant moments. The fact that Allen plays the same role she always does, i.e., the repressed wife/mother figure with a hidden reservior of intense feeling, would be more annoying if she didn't do it so superbly, exactly right. Next to her, William Macy is merely adequate, though often quite funny, as the impotent and increasingly bewildered father figure; a fine actor, he risks being typecast as a comic butt or supporting disposable. Witherspoon does an entertaining act as the '90s bad girl who begins by changing the Pleasantville world and ends by discovering that changes in herself may be in order. If her character arc is less convincing than her brother's, it's worth viewing, like the visuals, as part of the allegory rather than a realistic pattern.
In fact, behind the very unreality of Pleasantville is yet another allegorical message: what Pleasantville appears to be on the surface is what it actually is--a mere surface, a facade, nothing of substance. Applied to the time period it parodies, it makes fundamentally the same observation that last year's L.A. Confidential did: the golden ideal of the color in Pleasantville becomes a pointed metaphor for color in the racial sense, tying in neatly with the movie's larger lesson that change is inevitable and desirable, if not an unmixed blessing.
But to read too earnestly in Pleasantville an allegory of American society would be to distort its main intent, which is to please. Its political and cultural allusions are more playful than profound, and in overall tone it remains light-hearted, never leaving the comic realm. This is one of the reasons the movie succeeds so effortlessly. Great drama it may not be, but it's certainly at treat to watch.
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