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'Pleasantville': A Gray Escape

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 1998

  Movie Critic

Tobey Maguire watches a couple from "Pleasantville" who have turned into color after discovering their sensuality.
(New Line Cinema)

Gary Ross
Jeff Daniels;
Joan Allen;
Paul Walker;
William H. Macy;
Tobey Maguire;
Reese Witherspoon
Running Time:
1 hour, 56 minutes
Implied sexuality
Writer-director Gary Ross questions America's affection for the way things used to be, the nostalgia for bygone values of the kind held by '50s sitcom families. Nobody killed anybody on the playground therein, it's true, but would you really want to reside in one of these bland, black-and-white suburbs?

Ross gives two modern siblings a chance to do just that in "Pleasantville," a wickedly clever spoof of the TV genre modeled on those mythical communities that the Nelsons, the Andersons and the Cleavers called home. The author of the populist comedies "Big" and "Dave," Ross makes a surprisingly assured directorial debut with this technically demanding material.

Though comparisons to the boob-tube allegory "The Truman Show" are apt, the concept is altogether different. Truman wanted to get out of Seahaven, but David (Tobey Maguire), a kid from a broken home, takes great comfort in the reruns of "Pleasantville." An aficionado of the TV series, he can recite the lines right along with George Parker (William H. Macy), his doting wife, Betty (Joan Allen), and their golly-gee kids, Bud (Kevin Connors) and Mary Sue (Natalie Ramsey). David and his outgoing sister, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), inherit the kids' roles when, like Alice, they pass through the looking glass into a world of gray.

David is delighted with the safety of a scripted community, where husband and wife sleep in twin beds, the home team always wins and a burnt meatloaf passes for tragedy. But Jennifer, a hormonally active shopaholic, is appalled by their situation. "We're supposed to be in color!" she protests.

David urges her to fit in lest she alter reality as well as their chances of finding their way back home. But the rebellious Jennifer pays him no heed and introduces her innocent beau to the joy of sex, her classmates to literature and her mother to hot baths and masturbation.

With David's help, the mild-mannered Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels) realizes he'd rather paint murals than manage the soda shop. David also becomes a hero when he teaches the Pleasantville firemen how to put out the town's first fire. Before this extraordinary event, they had never done anything but rescue cats.

As the townsfolk become more diverse, their world begins to take on color – a single red rose, a lime green coupe, a mother's face. But along with color, double beds and more exciting basketball games, they discover delinquency, dissatisfaction, racism and fascism.

As a cautionary tale, the movie is as hopelessly naive as the genre it debunks. The idealized American family of "Father Knows Best" was already beginning to fall apart in "The Wonder Years." And movie parodies such as "The Brady Bunch" surely destroyed any lingering illusions.

Perhaps it still comes as a revelation to Ross, whose inquiry into censorship and intolerance lacks the edge and depth of a truly inspired work. It is a film that tries to be about ideas, and that is as rare as Ross's comic ingenuity. The latter is readily evident when he's not trying to draw big lessons from this fairy tale.

Though uneven in tone, the movie boasts many a memorable moment and is bolstered by the superb performances of Macy and Allen as the sitcom's repressed, increasingly perplexed parents and Daniels's poignantly comic turn as soda jerk turned primitive artist.

The late J.T. Walsh takes his final bow as the blustery blowhard who attempts to maintain the predictable rhythms of "Pleasantville." And Don Knotts, a longtime resident of Mayberry, is a riot as the impish TV repairman who sets the story in motion.

After "The Truman Show" and "Holy Man," the message is as familiar as the homecoming sitcom husband's cry of "Honey, I'm home": It is better to face the messy realities of the world than to dwell in "Pleasantville."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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