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'Pleasantville': Just a Shade Off

By Michael O'Sullivan
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
For mild profanity, sexual double- entendres and oblique sexuality
In conception and execution, "Pleasantville" is so ambitious, so clever and so satisfying in so many ways that the small inconsistency that mars its real achievement is almost negligible.

An elaborate fantasy about two contemporary teenagers transported into the fictional black-and-white setting of a 1950s sitcom, the movie is like a hermetically sealed biosphere with an air leak. It sets up a fabulous alternate universe that operates separately from this one, and then it proceeds to break one of its own cardinal rules.

As an escape from his unhappy home life and the troubles of the modern world, David (Tobey Maguire) watches daily reruns of "Pleasantville," a show much like "Father Knows Best." One day, along with his trampy sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), he is zapped into his favorite program when a strangely insistent door-to-door TV repairman (Don Knotts) leaves them a magical remote control to replace the one they have broken. (Since TV's "Matlock," Knotts has not been getting out much, but his warbling drawl and google-eyed reappearance here is a welcome reminder of why he has been missed.)

In the monochrome town of Pleasantville, David and Jennifer find themselves transplanted into the roles of Bud and Mary Sue Parker, trapped in a white-bread family where dad George (William H. Macy) is always in a suit and perpetually-aproned mom Betty (Joan Allen) seems to live in the kitchen. In Pleasantville, it never rains, nobody has sex, there are no toilets or art, and the books in the library are all blank.

Slowly, slowly, with the disruptive arrival of David, who can't accept the mindless rote of Pleasantville's citizenry (or its chastity, in the case of Jennifer, who introduces her adoptive community to nooky), the town begins to change into color – first a rose, then a comb, then a clock, then several of the townsfolk themselves. Those Pleasantvillagers who remain black and white, under the leadership of town demagogue Big Bob (J.T. Walsh), form angry posses to denounce the "coloreds," who now include Betty and her illicit lover, Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels), proprietor of the malt shop.

So far so good. The buoyant flight of fancy has up to now been a witty and visually stunning tour de force, and the acting is uniformly good. Witherspoon and Maguire's naturalism is a nice, insinuating contrast to the corny formality of their new neighbors.

As in "The Truman Show," writer, director and producer Gary Ross creates an elaborate conceit – an entire, make-believe world whose very existence depends on rigorous adherence to a fanciful premise. Unfortunately, here's where that hissing sound of escaping air becomes apparent.

As the film explains it, it is not just sex, but emotion that changes people into color. Not just love, but any deep feeling, including sadness or anger. So why do all the black and white vigilantes with their angry denunciations of their multihued brethren remain black and white? Even within the film's own synthetic logic, it just doesn't make sense.

I desperately want to like – even love – "Pleasantville," and in numerous ways I do. Maguire and Witherspoon are young actors of immense warmth and charm, and first-time filmmaker Ross has a gifted imagination. And the film's message about life in all its messy, Technicolor glory is heartfelt.

Still, I can't get over the nagging feeling that "Pleasantville's" beguiling spell was cast by a real magician, only to be carelessly broken by the same clumsy charlatan.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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