reviewed by Tom-Tom
This is one of my top ten favorite films of all time. Its originality and applicability to the fantastical significance we place on times of an imagined innocence are both remarkable achievements. This could have been a simple, preachy one-message film full of overexplained obvious scenes. Instead, it shows much more than tells in a constantly surprising and amusing way. There’s no clear message but there are various themes debunking our fantasies on the “perfect American small town family.”
David (a very young Toby Maguire who actually looks high school age) is a nerd with a penchant for remembering meaningless trivia from black and white classic TV shows. Socially awkward, he makes conversation with a girl of his dreams from 30 yards away. His twin sister is Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), your typical 90’s acting out teenager. She smokes and sets up a hookup with the school hunk. They live in a gated community with a single mother (Jane Kaczmarek from Malcom in the Middle!))who is about to go on a vacation with “her new boyfriend.” You can’t really blame David for wanting to drown himself in an idyllic setting of TV 1950’s America (as opposed to the real 1950’s America with lynchings, civil injustice, Jim Crow, church bombings etc) to escape from his dull life where the future is looking to be pretty grim, as detailed by every single teacher in each of his classes.
The two twins plan dual fun evenings, both involving the “big” Zenith TV in the living room (this is the 90’s so it is just a pitiful boxy block). Their house is visited by a strange old man (Don Knotts from The Andy Griffith Show!)claiming to be from “Reliable TV Repair.” He replaces their broken remote with something that looks like a prop from a 1970’s Doctor Who episode. After the strange old man leaves, the two twins are somehow transported into the black and white town of Pleasantville from the (fictional) classic TV show of the same name and find themselves adorned in the same black and white hues with matching clothes and hairstyles from the show’s son and daughter characters Bud and Mary Sue. Brimming with incredulity, they are called to breakfast by their hearty TV parents Betty (the inimitable Joan Allen) and George (William H. Macy in a role he was born for). They are offered stacks of pancakes, waffles, eggs, bacon, “and a ham steak” TV Mom proudly proclaims. David and Jen are in an impossible situation. Must they live the rest of their lives as different people in a different time, different place, without color, danger, or sexiness? A cool car pulls up and it’s honest to God young as all-get-out Paul Walker. He’s wearing a letter jacket and pristine unmoving hair looking the All-American. Lessons at school are banal, idiotic explanations of town geography. Basketball practice is also pointless as all shots effortlessly go in even when kicked in a different direction.
Pretty soon Jen/Mary Sue gets fed up with the slow pace of dating circa 1950’s Pleasantville and takes Paul to Lover’s Lane but not to hold hands. Her methods catch on and soon, color is to be seen in the rose bushes, select leaves, and eventually as entire people. Bud’s part time job at the local diner introduces him him to Jeff Daniels as Bill Johnson, the seemingly simple-minded tip of the glacier type of guy who is learning ways to do things while going against the grain one leap at a time. Interestingly enough, every time the characters enter Bill’s Soda Pop and Burger Stand, the music playing out of the jukebox advances onto the 60’s, into 5/4 time of Dave Brubeck.
As the music progresses, so does the colors, culture, books, independence and a great many other things. These changes are not met with joy by the hardliners led by the town mayor Big Bob played with restraint and trademark magnanimousnessby the great J.T. Walsh in one of his final roles. There are book burnings and signs that say “No Colored Allowed” referring to the aforementioned figures who have changed to technicolor. These signs all reveal the stink lying at the center of the not so pleasant Pleasantville, conformity over change, quashing anything untoward via shaming.
The conclusion may be a bit cheesy but it is in keeping with the film thus far. That’s intended as a compliment. There is such humor, beauty, and almost a Terry Pratchett lesson to be learned here in a totally out of the box manner. One of of the best films of the 90’s.