MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Tobey Maguire (David/Bud Parker), Reese Witherspoon (Jennifer/Mary Sue Parker), Jeff Daniels (Mr. Johnson), Joan Allen (Betty Parker), William H. Macy (George Parker), J.T. Walsh (Big Bob), Don Knotts (TV Repairman), Paul Walker (Skip), Marley Shelton (Margaret)
Knowledge is not always a pleasant thing. It is both wonderful and horrible; while opening one's eyes to all that life has to offer, the accumulation of knowledge also sheds light on the darkest corners of human existence, allowing one to see both the good and the bad in life.
In the Biblical story of creation, Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden, not so much because they were evil, but because they gained knowledge. After eating from the Tree of Knowledge, their eyes were opened and they understood the existence of good and evil. So, on one hand, it made them that much closer to God, while on the other hand, it dealt them a heavy load that humanity still bears today.
This is essentially the theme underlying Gary Ross' wonderful new film, "Pleasantville." It is a fable for the television generation, beginning with the familiar "Once upon a time ...," but then transporting us to places so vivid in imagery and so deep in thematic richness that we feel we are in a new world that is both alien and frighteningly familiar. It is familiar because we have all seen it before--on re-runs of "Leave it to Beaver," "Father Knows Best," "The Donna Reed Show," and the like; it is alien because they are worlds that never truly existed except within the strict confines of the television set. No matter how much we like to wax nostalgic about the fifties, they were never that perfect--all you need to do is read Larry McMurtry's "The Last Picture Show" to understand that.
"Pleasantville" posits the idea that two teenagers from the nineties--the awkward and shy David (Tobey Maguire) and his slutty, aggressive sister, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon)--are magically transported into the fictional world of a squeaky-clean fifties-era TV show called "Pleasantville." Now in black and white with slicked hair, bobby socks, perfected pressed shirts, and poodle skirts, David and Jennifer become Bud and Mary Sue Parker, the perfectly, "swell" children of the utterly middle class George (William H. Macy) and Betty (Joan Allen) Parker.
Because David has watched endless re-runs of "Pleasantville" so that he knows even the most minute scrap of trivia, he is able to navigate through the new world. He knows who each character is, whether that be Skip (Paul Walker), the goofy captain of the basketball team who has a crush on Mary Sue, or Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels), the guy who runs the local soda fountain. Jennifer, being more attune to MTV than old re-runs, is not familiar with the landscape, and her nineties-era behavior immediately causes problems. "You're messing with their whole universe!" David tells her, but to no avail. Once change begins, it's almost impossible to stop.
First-time director Gary Ross creates an absorbing world in Pleasantville, one that is both illogical and completely logical at the same time. The town functions in terms of its existence as a television show; therefore, because no one ever had sex in fifties TV shows, no one in Pleasantville even knows what sex is. TV characters don't go to the bathroom, so there are no toilets. Because episodes never take place outside the town, the town citizens don't understand the question, "What's outside of Pleasantville?" And, because they can't even comprehend anything outside the town limits, it isn't surprising that all the books in the library are blank because, as we all know, books are the ultimate source of knowledge.
Unsurprisingly, the catalyst for change in Pleasantville is sex. But there's infinitely more to it than that, because sex represents much more than physical pleasure--it represents knowledge and dangerous emotion. And, from there, the people of the town just want to know more. It isn't that they've been repressed; you can't be repressed from something that doesn't exist. And, until David and Jennifer show up, there are many things that simply don't exist for the residents of Pleasantville: sex, rain, fire, books, but most importantly, knowledge.
Ross finds the perfect symbolic means to represent the gaining of knowledge in his fictional monochromatic town, a visual trick that is so seemingly simplistic that many may overlook just how profoundly inspiring it is: things start to turn from black and white to color. The first thing is a rose, which Skip sees in vibrant reds after being sexually initiated by Jennifer. Mr. Johnson begins to see colors when he sheds his mundane daily routine of flipping burgers and realizes his dream of being a painter. Ross and cinematographer John Lindley ("Field of Dreams") take full advantage of the visual imagery, mixing black and white and color images within the frames to achieve great visual impact. They create some scenes that are so spectacular, you wish you could freeze the film and just stare at them like paintings.
Within these beautiful frames, Ross creates a moving story about the loss of innocence and the need for responsibility with the newfound knowledge. This is not new territory for him thematically--two films for which he wrote screenplays, "Big" (1988) and "Dave" (1993), were both about naive characters who grow in knowledge and must deal with it accordingly. Like those films, "Pleasantville" has a perfectly harmonious mix of comedy and human drama; it could have been banal and simplistic if Ross had used it as a childish vehicle to mock traditional values as pointless and repressive. They movie does get its share of laughs from the disparity between David and Jennifer's lives and attitudes and those they encounter in Pleasantville (after all, it is a comedy), but the scenes are intelligent and well handled.
Ross understands that the narrow, naive life represented by Pleasantville is no better than the life represented by David and Jennifer's world, full of hatred, loss, divorce, broken families, and loveless sex. The difference between these two worlds is knowledge, and the wonderful, necessary argument Ross makes in "Pleasantville" is that knowledge in and of itself is not bad--it's what you do with it that counts.
©1998 James Kendrick