Saturday, September 12, 2015

Zaki's Original Review: Pleasantville

First published: October 30, 1998

Note: Pleasantville was my first exposure to Tobey Maguire. As you can see from this review, he made a definite positive impression on me, but little did I know that just under four years later he'd become one of the biggest stars in the world. Also, interesting to see how far director Gary Ross has come from his beginnings here, having gone to helm the first film in the Hunger Games franchise. Also interesting to note how truly timeless the film's central message is no matter how much time passes since its initial release.

On the most superficial level, Pleasantville is a deconstruction of the conventions and cliches of sitcoms in the 1950s. It goes much deeper, however. The film is a multi work that deserves to be analyzed and re-analyzed for years to come.

The story tells of siblings David and Jennifer (Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon), who wind up inside "Pleasantville,"a faux-sitcom in the mold of Father Knows Best, with the black & white color scheme to match, after being given a strange remote control by an even stranger TV repair man (Don Knotts). This premise hardly fills one with confidence, and indeed the basic setup served as the plot for 1992's forgettable John Ritter-Pam Dawber vehicle Stay Tuned. Were Pleasantville to play out its hand as a Leave it to Beaver parody, it may have been adequate, if equally forgettable, fantasy.

Seemingly defying all odds, it becomes something much more powerful. As they are introduced to new experiences like reading and sex, the gray-toned townspeople find themselves gradually turning Technicolor. With the denizens of Pleasantville being forced to come to terms with these changes in themselves and their surroundings, the filmmakers make a very bold statement."Can we change back?" wonders William H. Macy as a Ward Cleaver-esque father figure. The answer is no, because the price of advancement is the loss of an innocence that can never be regained.

Pleasantville is the first directorial effort of Big screenwriter Gary Ross, and it is a stunning debut. It would have been far too easy for Ross to sit back and let the special effects become the star of the piece, but Pleasantville is so magnificently conceived on every level that the effects are merely frosting.

In addition to the startling technical achievements, Pleasantville is a triumph on the performance level. The two young leads prove themselves admirably, with Maguire particularly noteworthy. Macy and Joan Allen, as the parents, are always welcome additions to any ensemble. The late J.T. Walsh is also noteworthy in his final role as the hateful town mayor. One of the film's crown jewels is Jeff Daniels as the soda store owner with dreams of being an artist.

The look of wonder on Daniels' face as he is shown a book of art, full of lush and vibrant colors the likes of which he has never seen before is truly poignant. With a movie like Pleasantville it's best not to analyze too deeply some of the fantastic concepts that are used. Instead, its true strenght lies in what it says not only about life, but about ourselves. A

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