A Film by Gary Ross
This delightful debut film from writer-director Gary Ross (who wrote the successful and intelligent comedies Dave and Big) employs the high-tech possibilities of computer enhancement to create a magical-realist fable of the technological era. "Through the looking-glass" becomes "into the television" as Ross exploits the conventions and imagery of "situation comedy" to create a wry commentary on America's romantic idealization of our history and raise questions about how that affects our ability to find direction in the present and the future.
In the 1990s teen-age brother and sister David (The Ice Storm's Tobey McGuire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are caught up in the trials of adolescence. Living with their unhappy, divorced mother, David sees himself as a selfconscious, unattractive geek and Jennifer uses her budding sexuality to try to establish a positive identity.
After breaking their TV remote control in an argument, (Jennifer has an important TV date to watch an MTV concert with a popular boy; David wants to watch a 12 hour marathon of his favorite 50's sit-com on cable) they are visited by a mysterious TV repairman (Don Knotts) who gives them a new one. When they get in another fight over it they find themselves projected into the world of David's program, Pleasantville, into the roles of the two children, Bud and Mary Sue.
It is an interesting and often amusing conceit, a modern take on such classics as Twain's A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court. Twain used his modern hero to explode some of the romantic notions that the late 19th century held about chivalry, courtly love, and morality. Ross uses his modern heroes to explode the current nostalgia for the "simpler times" of earlier American eras, specifically the 50's America of Norman Rockwell and Father Knows Best.
One of the promotional tag lines used for the movie is "Nothing is as simple as black and white." It is an apt motto for this provocative movie that is not satisfied to create an easy contrast and resolve it with an pat conclusion. In fact, the film ends with a suitably modern, highly ambiguous question, rather than anything that might be taken for an answer.
The contrast between the blindly optimistic, falsely idealistic morality of the world of 1950s television and the ironic cynicism of modern kids provides many very funny moments. It also provides insights into both the wrong-headed, selfrighteous rigidities of the 50's and the knee-jerk pessimism of the 90's. Ross uses his protagonists to build a metaphor linking the pain and struggle of growing up as individuals with that of growing up as a society.
Psychologists have only recently begun to extrapolate from the well-known concept that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" - that the physiological development of an individual mirrors the development of the species. David and Jennifer and their TV parents George and Betty Parker (played by William H. Macy and Joan Allen) go through a transformation that may suggest that in some ways the transformation - dare we hope it might be a maturation? - of our society.
Of course, the two-dimensional simple-mindedness of the 50s sit-com genre is an easy target. If Ross had only made it ridiculous without any real sensitivity to the deep human yearning it represented - which we still carry with us -it would have been a cheap laugh (see The Brady Bunch Movie and other such condescending and self-congratulatory exploitations of nostalgia disguised as satire). As in his previous scripts, however, he takes the trouble to explore the complicated relationship between satirist and subject. Even as we make fun of the past, we may be committing equal folly in the present.
The script is clever and intelligent. The humor is sophisticated, and occasionally develops a real bite, as Ross examines the border between conservatism and fascism, between the desire to keep things "pleasant" and the kind of reactionary fury that can fuel racism and book-burning. In the end it affirms that transformation -always starting with the personal -is possible.
The failures of the film involve its bold decision to operate in the realm of fantasy. In this skeptical age people often find it hard to make the leap of faith necessary to engage with highly imaginative, "un-realistic" narratives. Rightly resistant to such manipulative and misguided attempts to exploit imagination as the recent What Dreams May Come, we protect ourselves by dismissing the genre out-of-hand.
Ross has chosen a difficult task in trying to overcome our reservation by creating a context that is un-abashedly imaginary, and yet emotionally authentic. It is a difficult duality to sustain, and when he stumbles it hurts. Luckily, he rarely stumbles, and when he does he recovers quickly.
The performances he gets from his actors are uniformly good. His two young principals, Witherspoon and McGuire, show a real understanding of the need to take their fantastic journey absolutely seriously. Both manage to build characters who are interesting and believable. We care what happens to them and we accept their incredible predicament partly because they do. McGuire especially, who carries a lot of the film, invests his role with an attractive combination of brash competence and vulnerable innocence.
It is hard to say enough about Joan Allen. She puts so much honesty and energy into everything she does. Here she takes a character who could have been merely symbolic, and invests her with a full spectrum of emotions and characteristics, communicated with an economy that makes it seem easy and natural - hence fully believable.
William H. Macy also does a fine job. He makes George's transition from black and white to color - from two safely self-limited dimensions to an uncontrollable three - both individual and universal. Together with Allen - and an equally delicate and effective performance by Jeff Daniels - he explores the painful but unavoidable fact that life is change in a way that informs that exploration with humor and poignancy.
In a sense this film leans too heavily on its special effects. The use of black and white and color - sometimes in the same shot - is a neat trick, but sometimes it is so clever that it becomes intrusive: we think "how did they do that," and lose the emotional thread of the story. When Zero Mostel performed Ionesco's Rhinoceros the power of the play came not from detailed and amazingly effective make-up that transformed Mostel, but from the fact that he didn't use or need any.
The special effects in the film occasionally betray the actors by underlining an emotional accent that doesn't need underlining. But the production values are excellent. The sets and props are often wonderful images in themselves. Betty and George's breakfast table is a trenchant satirical comment on consumerism and consumption. Big Bob (the late J.T. Walsh in a fine performance) filmed in front of a projected bowling scorecard reflects both the American preoccupation with games, and our propensity to take our fun far too seriously.
The camera work is varied enough to be interesting and includes some imaginative moves and angles. Because of the breadth of the whole fantasy theme there is a lot of lee-way for stylization and Ross and his Director of Photography John Lindley clearly enjoy their freedom, but their creativity is carefully disciplined to support the story rather than staging clever stunts.
The score by the always amazing Randy Newman blends original music and bridges with an eclectic collection of tunes that work very well to underscore and amplify the action. A particularly apt example is the use of jazz, - specifically Paul Desmond's Time Out - to evoke the spirit of the loosening of restrictions, the unfolding of self-awareness, followed by the barely controlled chaos of Miles Davis's So What.
The juxtaposition of the vapid superficiality of 50's pop and TV "theme music" and the rhythmic sensuality of rock and jazz present the contrast between a lifeless exercise of musicality and its foot tapping, soul-stirring presence.Newman lets the classic tunes he chooses speak for themselves - and he also knows when to turn the music off.
Although it has its flaws, Pleasantville is a sometimes daring, charming and often surprisingly thought-provoking comedy. It is genuinely funny into the bargain, with a kind of intelligent and sympathetic humor that stays with you.
That's my take on it. What's yours?