Pleasantville
directed by Gary Ross
(New Line Cinema, 1998)

Suppose you lived all your life in a town called Pleasantville, then came home from work one day to discover that some not-so-pleasant things were happening.

That's precisely the problem facing the fictional denizens of the TV town of Pleasantville when their community is invaded by two real-life teens propelled into their television set by a high-powered remote control. Of course, the interlopers are facing a few problems of their own, not the least of which is that they've taken the places of two of Pleasantville's best-known citizens, Bud and Mary Sue.

Like everyone else in Pleasantville, Bud and Mary Sue are perfect. They work hard, eat hearty and never raise their voices. Oh, yes, and they're black & white, just like the TV show whose reruns they inhabit. That makes Bud and Mary Sue very different from the teens who've taken their places, David and Jennifer (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon).

David is the town geek: He knows everything there is to know about the '50s sitcom Pleasantville, and his dream in life is to win TV Time's Pleasantville trivia contest. Dave's sister, Jennifer, is the school slut. She concentrates on carnal knowledge.

Not surprisingly, it doesn't take David and Jennifer long to begin a cross-fertilization process that leaves an indelible mark, in a rainbow of colors, on the town of Pleasantville.

Writer-director Gary Ross' film is a Twilight Zone for the '90s. It's part fantasy, part allegory, part Back to the Future and part Invasion of the Body Snatchers -- a combination of '50s sitcom and sci-fi flick which contains obvious allusions to everything from Animal Farm to To Kill a Mockingbird.

In short, it covers a lot of ground. The miracle is that it covers that ground so well: Pleasantville itself is a hysterical creation: a town where the basketball team not only never loses, it never misses a shot, and firefighters spend their days pulling cats from trees because the entire town is simply non-combustible.

That just makes the mayhem all the more fun when color begins to leech into the lives of the Pleasantvillians, and all the nastier when the old-boy network puts its foot down -- all the way to ordering what size beds people may sleep in.

Pleasantville is a quirky work that will send some people into laugh spasms and leave others completely cold. Its message is obvious, but its method of delivery is not, at least in the beginning.

It has much to say about America and the world and how we accept change.

Sometimes it's a little heavy-handed -- David's message speeches are as subtle as a ball peen hammer. But more often it's absolutely brilliant, as when Bud's father, George (William H. Macy), comes home from work to find his house dark, the kitchen empty, the dining room table unset.

George runs off to tell his friend, Big Bob (J.T. Walsh), who rouses his fellow Chamber of Commerce members to action with a speech:

"We're safe here. Thank goodness we're in a bowling alley. But if George here doesn't get his dinner, any one of us could be next."

Indeed, Kevin McCarthy couldn't have said it any better.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]



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