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Pleasantville

Pleasantville

What She said:

She

Does the world feel out of control?  Morally dead?  Are you wishing that you lived in a more idyllic time?  How about 1950s suburban Americana?  The Leave it to Beaver or My Three Sons world that greeted our country during the mid-20th century seems nearly perfect—the classic family of four with a cheerful dad jetting off to work in his Ford every day and mom staying at home while the kids are at school, cleaning and preparing meals.  This is a world where a single income paid for the perfect house, where mom was thrilled to wake up early, put on her knee length dress, and slave over a huge breakfast that the family would gobble up, and where the kids treated their parents with perfect respect.  But is this world really as great as one would imagine? 

Pleasantville broaches the topic, and does so in a creative and entertaining way.  David and Jennifer are sister and brother living in 1990s suburbia.  David is a bit of a loser, shy and nearly invisible at school.  Jennifer, in contrast, is popular and a complete hit with the guys.  She has a bad side, often standing around smoking cigarettes until a fella picks her up.  They don’t exactly have the perfect home life either.  Their divorced mother is trying to move on with her life, which means that she has a younger boyfriend that she disappears with for days at a time, leaving the kids at home by themselves.  While Jennifer is deeply engrossed in her social life, David copes with his issues by obsessively watching an old family TV show from the ‘50s called Pleasantville.  It’s exactly what you would expect it to be. 

So, things are meandering along as normal until one Friday night David and Jennifer find that themselves fighting over the same TV.  Jennifer wants to watch a concert on MTV with a boy.  David wants to watch the Pleasantville marathon and potentially win a $1,000 contest.  During their squabble, they break the remote, and since this is “one of those new TVs that needs a remote to work,” they’re out of luck.  Fortunately, a creepy old man shows up and gives them a special remote.  David and Jennifer resume fighting and *ZAP* they jettison into the world of Pleasantville, literally.  David becomes Bud and Jennifer becomes Mary Sue.  They immediately panic and want to get home, but they appear to be trapped there for at least a few weeks.  The teenagers try to make the best of things, living out the 1950s life until they can come back home.  But their presence, with their differing personalities and morals, begins to shake things up for the good and the bad.  Pleasantville is rocked, and we, the viewer, get to watch as big changes start happening.

Pleasantville

Wow, that was a long build up to a fairly simple premise.  Kids get buzzed into another era.  It seems totally cheesy, and it kind of feels that way at first.  The notion is so far-fetched.  But the moviemakers do a really good job of approaching the story with a flair of comedy and excited curiosity that makes you want to go along with it.  And you’ll be very happy that you did.  What starts as a fun family film, with breezy humor and an interesting story, begins to morph into a more serious social commentary.  Honestly, I wasn’t alive during the 1950s, but I have to assume that it wasn’t the perfection that we often see represented in old TV shows and movies.  Pleasantville makes light of this, first as a satire, and then more in depth as an evaluation of the perils of such a closed-minded society.  We learn that being a stay-at-home mom has some real downsides, and that there is some good that comes from the edginess of rock music.  When we live a little, we learn to express ourselves and grow as individuals.  We also learn that even the most properly behaved can have a dark side, deeply ridden with prejudice. 

Pleasantville is truly interesting to watch, both as the story unfolds and visually.  It was kind of a big deal when it came out in 1998.  Once David and Jennifer jump into Pleasantville, everything is in black and white, as it is on the TV show.  Now, that in and of itself is nothing fascinating to look at, but, slowly, one item after another, elements of Pleasantville begin to convert into color.  It all starts with a single rose turning red instead of gray.  Before too long, we have whole people walking around in color amongst those still stuck in black and white.  As you can quickly figure out, the color is meant to represent those who have changed.  This change isn’t necessarily them becoming rebellious.  The change happens when a person does something that is truly new to them.  So for Jennifer, it takes a lot more than her just kissing a boy.  And for David, he can be as open-minded as he wants, but he has to face his personal demons to find himself in color.  It’s really neat to see certain elements appear in color while others do not—a black and white girl blowing a bright pink bubble—novel special effects.  This visual trick also serves to reinforce the plot, as there are some characters who remain living in the black and white, seeing things only one way or the other, and not exploring the blurred lines in between.

However dramatized, Gary Ross, who directed, wrote, and produced Pleasantville does a very good job of telling a story.  He uses everything that he has available to him to accomplish this, and that includes a top notch cast.  Tobey Maguire plays David/Bud, Reese Witherspoon is Jennifer/Mary Sue, William H. Macy plays the Pleasantville  father, George, and Joan Allen plays the mother, Betty.  Jeff Daniels also steps in as Mr. Johnson, who runs the local soda shop.  He’s a very conflicted fella.  I really enjoyed the performances of each of these actors in the film, and think they brought a lot to their characters.

Overall, Pleasantville, while absolutely bonkers in premise, is a fun fantasy-drama with good social commentary.  It can be a little preachy, but it’s also quite interesting to watch.  It also benefits from humor that’s genuinely funny. 

Thumbs up.

Pleasantville

What He said:

He

David (Tobey McGuire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherpoon) are brother and sister, but nothing alike. David is the quiet nerdy type, while Jennifer is more popular and social. As a result, the two of them don’t get along so well.

One evening they have conflicting plans. David wants to watch a marathon of his favorite show, Pleasantville. It’s a very stereotypical 1950s sitcom about a very stereotypical suburban family – the Parkers. Jennifer wants to watch a concert on MTV with a boy she’s invited over. Unaware of the other’s plans, the two of them end up getting into a fight over the remote control and end up breaking it. Strangely enough, a TV repairman shows up at the door minutes later. Other than the fact that he shows up almost immediately after they break the remote, he (played by Don Knotts)is a strange old fella. He is extremely polite – almost like something out of a 1950s TV show – and like David is a big fan of Pleasantville. David tells him of his plan to watch the marathon and enter a chance to win a trivia contest and win $1,000. For some strange reason, the TV repairman seems to be very happy to hear about David’s enthusiasm for the show.

After reaching for a standard remote, he pulls something else out of his toolbox. He grabs a rather archaic looking remote control. He claims it is a much better one and will make their TV viewing experience significantly better. Jen doesn’t care, she just wants it fixed so that she can proceed with her date. David is a bit of a TV junkie, so he’s into the whole thing. He hit it off with the old guy over Pleasantville anyway. So the old guy leaves and they decided to check this thing out. He wasn’t lying, the remote is nothing like anything they’ve seen before. The next t thing they know, they are sucked into television set, specifically the world of Pleasantville. You heard me, they are actually in the show playing the parts of Bud and Mary Sue Parker.

Pleasantville

Completely freaked out, they try using the remote again, and when that fails they are only panic-stricken by their unusual situation. After looking through the channels on the TV, they eventually come across the TV repairman. He tells them not to worry and take in the whole experience. Soon after that, he disappears and leaves them alone in this fictional world where they are Bud and Mary Sue Parker.

They quickly realize the 50s – at least the fictional version of them – are nothing like where they come from. This is the epitome of the “perfect” family. Mom, Betty, cooks and cleans non-stop and does it all with a smile on her face. The size of the meals she (played by Joan Allen) cooks are enough to feed an army. Every meal she cooks is the size of Thanksgiving dinner. And for some strange reason, she never thinks anybody is full. She is constantly shoving food in people’s faces. George (William H. Macy) is the father and provider of the family. Like his wife, he does his job smile on his face. He also enjoys reading the paper, bowling, and discussing things at the barber shop with the boys.

David advises Jennifer that they should try to blend in and just not mess anything up. He’s fearful of what would happen if they didn’t play the part. He’s also kind of in heaven, being inside of his favorite TV show. Jen is not as happy playing the good girl Mary Sue. In fact, she starts to act a lot like herself after a while. This begins to have an effect on others around her. After a while the towns people begin to change. Literally. Some of the people in town start to appear in color. To put it mildly, it freaks people out. First they are scared, but many after a little while some of the “coloreds” start to embrace it. They start reading books, taking an interest in art, and doing other things the black and white folk deem to be different (and therefor bad). It causes some issues between the black and white folk and the coloreds.
I hadn’t seen this movie in years and after watching it recently, it occurred to me I may not have ever seen the thing from start-to-finish. I’ve seen it on TV several times, but I don’t think I’ve seen it in its entirety.

Pleasanvtille is a wonderful comedy/drama. This is a truly great movie. It’s funny, has some really dramatic moments, and is a visually stunning movie. The movie starts off very light and funny. It’s an excellent parody of those old TV shows. But part way through the movie – as the world of Pleasantville starts to change from black and white to color – it transforms into a very good drama. It covers some very serious issues and common issues, but in a way that is truly unique. It is way more entertaining to watch a movie about racism, intolerance, and civil rights when presented in such a fantastical setting. Maybe it’s just me, but real world themes are so much more appealing in a fantasy world. And speaking of the fantasy world, this is a gorgeous movie. Who would have thought that simply adding color to a movie would result in something so bold?

I also loved of the underlying stuff with David’s character. David isn’t just a fan of Pleasantville because he loves the show, but also because it represents the life he wishes he had. I didn’t mention this earlier, but his parents are divorced. They live with their mother, but she is too busy spending time with her boyfriend to pay attention to him or his sister. It’s not as in your face as some of the other themes, but by the time the movie is over you can see it. The opportunity to go into his personal fantasy results in some major growth for the character.

The movie also has some top-notch performances. Tobey McGuire and Reese Witherspoon are excellent as the bickering siblings David and Jennifer. William H. Macy and Joan Allen are excellent as their fictional parents. Betty is one of the people who starts to change from black and white to color. At first she’s terrified, but she begins to embrace it when she realizes how unhappy she actually was in the “ideal family setting”. Her husband George just doesn’t understand. He’s not mean our aggressive about rather troubled by the whole thing. He simply can’t understand why she is changing and why she seems to want to embrace it. Jeff Daniels is excellent as Bill Johnson, the owner of a local burger joint and soda shop that all the teenagers like to hang out at. David works at the store and is very close to Bill. Bill has some artistic talent and David encourages it. J.T. Walsh plays Big Bob, the mayor of Pleasantville. He’s not happy about these changes and is the leader of the people intent on restoring things back to their original way. Paul Walker (RIP) and Marley Shelton play David and Jennifer’s love interests. They don’t have huge roles, but they’re great supporting character. They’re important too, as they really help David and Jennifer decide what direction it is they’re going to go in.

Rating: Thumbs up.

This movie review was written for your reading pleasure on December 7, 2013.

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