[box cover]


New Line Home Video

Starring Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, Joan Allen,
William H. Macy, and J.T. Walsh

Written and directed by Gary Ross

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Besieged by modern distress — a messed up single mom, a future daunted by AIDS and unemployment, and nothing more concrete than dreams about girls — teenager David (Tobey Maguire) is in love with the re-run world of '50s sit-com "Pleasantville." He knows it intimately, every detail of every episode. Just when his geeky worship seems destined to pay off, in the form of a $6,000 trivia contest during a "Pleasantville" marathon, David and his slutty twin sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are miraculously zapped into their television and reluctantly find themselves assuming character roles in the strange, black-and-white universe of early television.

David becomes Bud, and Jennifer his sister Mary Sue, children of the Ozzie and Harriet-like Parkers (William H. Macy and Joan Allen). The idyllic TV-ness of "Pleasantville" takes some getting used to. It exists alone in its own quaint universe, perfectly oblivious of the non-existent outside world. Everything is perfect: There are no toilets, fires, or sex, and books have no content. This doesn't last long. Unable to avoid introducing modern ideas into this sealed community, Bud and Mary Sue spark an unstoppable revolution.

Writer/director/producer Gary Ross is no stranger to high-concept comedy, having previously written two terrific movies also about people fantastically transplanted into alien environs: Big and Dave. Like in both of those films, Ross shows a keen knack for comedy in Pleasantville. Where he fails this time out, however, is for once taking his jaunty idea too seriously, massacring its entertainment value with a preachy, narrow, and ultimately self-conflicting point-of-view.

At first it seems like Ross wants to spoof the media mythology of the '50s, shocking Bud and Mary Sue with a breakfast table piled high with exaggerated stacks of waffles, pancakes, and donuts. The town firemen exist solely to rescue tree-stranded cats. This narrative take doesn't last long, however, because Ross has a burning desire to shatter this idealized view of what he obviously feels is a repressive, hollow culture.

Mary Sue rebels and causes irreparable damage to the static community when she awakens the sexuality of her fellow teens, and eventually that of (some of) the adults. Suddenly, objects and then people in this gray-scaled world start bursting into color. The power of a mother's auto-generated first orgasm bursts a tree into flames.

Less-extroverted Bud innocuously introduces the town's inhabitants to art and literature, provoking working adults to break into existential crises over their meaningless jobs and empty marriages. Before long, the whole town is mostly color, and young people dream of breaking into the world outside Pleasantville.

Then everything goes wrong, both in the story and Ross' provincial development of his idea. Eager to display the falsity of the post-war TV life, Ross offers as a solution an equally false, idyllic vision of the modern world. Mary Sue's voracious sex drive surely enlivens Pleasantville's night life, but in the most pristine way: people have sex and a smile. No one becomes pregnant, there are no diseases, and nobody is raped. The more rebellious teens slick their hair back with grease and wear leather jackets, but never is there mention of alcohol or drug abuse.

Ross wants to have his cake, eat it, and then puke all over the audience. He wants to say that reality is preferable to this much heralded myth of "life was better when..." but he lacks the honesty or courage to present the benefits of social freedom coupled with their natural drawbacks. Bud speaks (and the enlightened citizens listen) romantically of the outside world, which is "louder, scarier, a lot more dangerous." But when these outside elements collide with the town's previously straight-laced mores, nothing loud, scary or dangerous evolves from it. The only scariness in Pleasantville is how the bad people react to these new ideas.

Every movie seems to need a villain, and you can count on the old, stuffy, white men and their angry young progeny to raise a ruckus over the degradation of values in Pleasantville. After all, when wives start acting independently, and don't have dinner waiting for their husbands there's bound to be major unrest. The mayor (J. T. Walsh) and his black-and-white supporters harass "colored" people, destroy obscenely painted property, burn books, and enact a code of conduct demanding Pleasantness.

Even if you agree in theory with Ross' premise that the world of Pleasantville needs some changes, it's hard not to be repulsed by the bullying way he asserts his vehement libertine paranoia. Bud leads the charge toward modernity with smug self-righteousness, bolstered on by dreamy, supportive close-ups of admiring, pretty girls. Walsh and his cronies are depicted (and forced unfairly to act) like Nazis, motivated by a deep-seated, burning sexual repression. Bud's cliched final plea for freedom spurts out like ideological ejaculate, and made me long for the good old days of the Krystallnacht.

More subtly miscalculated is the careless way Ross sells his characters short. Mr. Parker, for example, is never a bad guy, simply confused by the sudden changes. Still, the movie celebrates his wife's infidelity with an artistic dreamer (Jeff Daniels, acting bizarrely retarded). Even though Mr. Parker finally breaks into color and admits real feelings for his wife — even though she never attempts to share her enlightenment with him — she still leaves him triumphantly (yet cold-heartedly) to explore the world outside. Is commitment also one of those moldy values keeping struggling souls from liberation?

It's too bad Ross couldn't have worked a little harder on his idea. What could've been a provocative microcosm of the country's evolution since the '50s comes off as brow-beating self-gratification. Technically, though, the film is solid and creative, and all of the acting is excellent (pity, though, poor Don Knotts, the magical TV repairman who made it all happen, as he wavers inexplicably between flustered confusion, anger, and joy at the film's events).

Pleasantville is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen with both Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 tracks. The New Line disc features lots of extras, all better than the movie, including audio commentary by director Gary Ross, an isolated audio track in 2.0 Dolby with the musical score and commentary by composer Randy Newman, a great behind-the-scenes featurette "The Art of Pleasantville," the music video of Fiona Apple's butchery of the Beatles' "Across the Universe" directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights), a storyboard gallery, and color television set-up advice.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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