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(1998) (Tobey Maguire, Joan Allen) (PG-13)

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Drama: A present day brother and sister find their worlds turned upside down when they're mysteriously transported into the sterile, but always cheerful world of a black and white, 1950's TV sitcom.
David (TOBEY MAGUIRE) and his sister, Jennifer (REESE WITHERSPOON), live with their divorced mother in a typical suburban home. While Jennifer is somewhat known for her promiscuousness, David isn't that successful with girls and thus retreats to his home where he enjoys watching vintage 1950's TV sitcoms, particularly the show, "Pleasantville," where life is always perfect and happy.

Having seen the show so often that he's become something of a trivia expert on it, David is anxiously awaiting a marathon showing of that program's episodes. With their mother gone for the weekend, however, Jennifer is hoping to have her new boyfriend over to watch the latest concert on MTV. Before he arrives, the siblings get into a wrestling match where they end up breaking the remote.

To their surprise, an older TV repairman (DON KNOTTS) suddenly shows up with a newfangled remote that he urges them to use. Upon doing so, they're mysteriously transported into the TV and onto the "Pleasantville" show where, much to their initial horror, they find that they've assumed the roles of Bud and Mary Sue, children of the show's ever cheerful and complacent parents, George (WILLIAM H. MACY) and Betty Parker (JOAN ALLEN).

In this world where it never rains and there are no toilets, and where the firemen have never seen a fire and books are filled with blank pages, no one seems to notice that David and Jennifer aren't the "real" Bud and Mary Sue.

Knowing this world inside and out, David couldn't be happier. Jennifer, however, doesn't feel the same way until she meets Skip (PAUL WALKER), the high school basketball star who wants to go steady with her. She's ready for more than that, however, and after helping him lose his virginity, things begin to change around Pleasantville.

Not only do the basketball players start missing the shots they've always made in the past, and rock n' roll music starts to play on the jukebox for the first time, but color starts to infiltrate the show's normally black and white TV world.

The people start to change as well. Mr. Johnson (JEFF DANIELS), the owner of the local malt shop where David/Bud works, comes to life when David suddenly breaks their everyday routine. He consequently takes up painting, while David's TV mother, Betty, slowly begins to desire a change from her everyday homemaker schedule.

This doesn't sit well with George, who doesn't understand what's happening, or Big Bob (J.T. WALSH), Pleasantville's mayor, who decides something should be done to return things to normal. It seems, however, that it's too late as ever more people start becoming "colored," and soon the town is split into those who accept and want the colorful changes, and those who favor a return to the status quo.

As everything comes to a head in the once peaceful town, David and Jennifer, who realize that they're changing for the better as well, do what they can to promote peace and understanding before contemplating returning to their old world.

The high concept plot may draw in some, while the cast might do the same for others, but it's doubtful preteens will have much interest in this film.
For some thematic elements emphasizing sexuality, and for language.
  • TOBEY MAGUIRE plays the reserved high school student who finds his niche upon arriving in his favorite 1950's TV sitcom.
  • REESE WITHERSPOON plays his sister who's also in high school. Something of a rebel, she's known for sleeping around, and does so once in Pleasantville, but later changes her ways as she soon prefers books over boys.
  • WILLIAM H. MACY plays the stereotypical 1950's businessman who expects dinner on the table when he comes home from work.
  • JOAN ALLEN plays the stereotypical 1950's housewife who begins to rebel against such stereotypes and conformist beliefs. Although it's never confirmed, she and Mr. Johnson seemingly have an affair (at least of the heart).
  • JEFF DANIELS plays the guy who runs the malt shop who revels upon learning that he can break free of his daily routine, takes up art, and has something of an affair with Betty.
  • J.T. WALSH plays the local mayor who strives to keep conformity strong in his town.


    OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
    Enjoyable but a bit more successful in concept than realized execution, "Pleasantville" is a marriage of sorts between the plots of "Back to the Future" and "The Truman Show." Although initially as intriguing as those two films, it does suffer from some logic errors, a lack of urgency and for becoming perhaps a bit too heavy handed with its racial and conformist symbolism in the third act. Nonetheless, the picture still manages to exude a certain charm and sweetness, as well as a terrific supporting cast that makes it an overall entertaining picture.

    I must admit that my expectations for this feature may have been a bit high, what with everything about it suggesting the possibility of a great film. Although the director, Gary Ross, makes his feature debut with this picture, he's the guy who also penned the hit movies, "Big" and "Dave," two films that not only delivered high concept plots in an entertaining fashion, but also added nice layers of dimensional humaneness to them.

    This film's story -- as written by Ross -- also shows great potential in a "Twilight Zone" type way, and is a perfect example of a "high concept" idea. Yet, where "Truman" and especially "Back to the Future" took their initial ideas and expanded upon them, this film doesn't manage to get much beyond the initial concept.

    Yes, the film does take a radical turn in its third act, and before then offers some amusing moments by poking fun at the 1950's -- or more accurately, society's televised representation of that era that has become an accepted reality for those born after those times.

    Even so, the film somewhat suffers from this as it never quite figures out how to represent that world. Although everyone will have their own interpretation of how such a fictitious TV town would really exist, I had problems with the way it's presented here.

    In "Truman," the "set" existed (hidden from the real world) because the title character was a real person duped into believing he lived in a real town (with hilarious reasons why you could never leave) although he soon discovered that some buildings were just facades.

    Pleasantville, on the other hand -- and in my opinion -- would only consist of what actually appeared on any given episode of the TV show. While the movie occasionally uses this for humor -- Jennifer discovering much to her horror that toilets don't exist in a 1950's TV sitcom, and that books contain nothing but blank pages -- there's not enough here to make the siblings presence in their new setting either difficult for them, or greatly amusing for the audience.

    The film also runs into problems since we're not allowed to become familiar with the particulars of the fictitious TV show. While the siblings are presumably "beamed" into the show's individual episodes -- with which David is intimately familiar -- we know nothing about the plots or characters (beyond the basic "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Leave it to Beaver" stereotypes).

    That forces Ross to allow the characters to continue beyond (and outside) the particular episodes, something I'd personally think they'd have problems doing. I'd imagine the characters simply freezing until the next day -- sort of like the robotic figures in "Westworld" -- or becoming confused and stating "What do we do now?" with the answer being, "I don't know."

    The only such moment that occurs (and is indeed quite spooky in a "Twilight Zone" type way) is when Mr. Johnson has repeatedly continued to wipe a counter -- not knowing what to do since Bud hasn't show up like normal -- until he's worn away the Formica top.

    While the film does allow the characters to change -- a nice touch, although perhaps a bit too symbolic (of the era's upcoming changing social mores) -- such changes don't have much of a profound or even potential impact on our present day characters.

    Although David initially tells his sister that they have to protect the status quo or else they might not get back home (a fact that is never explained nor explored), this doesn't have nearly the same "suspenseful" elements as say, Marty McFly in "Back to the Future" who must deal with his would-be future mother falling for him in the past, thus endangering his own existence.

    That may just be this film's biggest drawback. While McFly not only had to get his parents back together again and meet the deadline of a significant lightning bolt, and Truman investigated the mystery of his world and then tried to escape from it, the characters here are mostly passive in their motivational behavior.

    Although near the end they eventually set out to free the characters from their black and white, stereotypical existence, and help them fight the confines of a conformist world, the film constantly feels cheated by its lack of urgency.

    The siblings never seem that shocked or surprised at their sudden predicament, nor do they attempt to figure out how to get back home. And once trapped inside the sitcom, they never explore the limits of this world. Instead they simply accept the others' word that the end of the town's roads simply connect back to their beginnings, and never question where the gasoline, their clothes, or any other number of items come from (let alone how people get along without using toilets).

    While some may see such complaints as nitpicking or unfair in comparing this film with others, the point is that such problems detract from the overall enjoyment of the film. For instance, there's never any real explanation regarding Don Knott's enigmatic TV repairman character (other than as homage for the actor's place in TV history and/or as a weakly constructed plot catalyst to get the story moving), while another involves the subject of color being introduced to Pleasantville.

    Although the treatment of such discoveries is occasionally appropriately handled (ladies gossip about a woman's pink tongue condition spreading to her lips), and Betty states that she can't go out in public being "colored" (which leads to a nice scene where Bud fixes her look with grey coverup makeup), the overall effect is less than one would imagine.

    First, the townspeople wouldn't know what color is -- let alone the exact names of different hues and tints they clearly identify -- since none of that's ever existed in their world. Secondly, such "sights" would most likely instill fear, confusion or public hysteria among the townspeople (at least that's what similar circumstances did to characters appearing in paranoia inspired films of the '50's).

    In Ross' defense, he does have his characters react to such changes as they would with Bud having an overdue library book, or Mary Sue staying out past her curfew -- and that's with concerned, but upbeat complacency.

    Nonetheless, Ross seems more interested in using the "colored" issue to symbolically examine not only conformity versus individualism and repression versus freedom, but also the underpinnings of racial tension that would later explode in the 1960's. While that's a perfectly acceptable thing to do, its execution often feels a bit too heavy handed and manipulative.

    While such elements finally give the film some much needed forward momentum, and complete the "freeing" of the sitcom's repressed characters, they definitely dampen the film's whimsical fantasy aura. In fact, despite the period trappings, the film also fails to adequately capture that fun 1950's spirit found in other "time traveling" films such as "Back to the Future" and "Peggy Sue Got Married."

    Again, these criticisms are listed only because such problems prevent the film from fully attaining the greatness it deserves. Despite those problems, however, the picture still has plenty of decent material. From the high school basketball team that initially can't miss a shot, to the perfect weather and a team of firemen who don't know what to do about a fire (since none ever occurred on the TV show), the film delivers plenty of fun and imaginative moments.

    The performances are solid across the board, although Toby Maguire ("The Ice Storm," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas") and Reese Witherspoon ("Fear," "Twilight") -- as likeable as they are -- lack the pure charisma and star power to fully carry or propel the film. Instead, the supporting performers get the plum roles and do great things with their characters.

    Two-time Oscar nominee Joan Allen ("Nixon," "The Crucible") is outstanding as the stereotypically repressed 1950's housewife. Subtly playing the changes that slowly overcome her, Allen delivers a stellar performance that may just earn her another nomination.

    William H. Macy ("Boogie Nights" and an Oscar nominee for "Fargo") is also very good. Perfectly playing the perpetually happy father and husband whose life quickly unravels, Macy is great in the role. The moment where he repeats his everyday entry routine of putting down his briefcase and hanging up his hat (after repeatedly calling out, "Honey, I'm home" to his absent wife) is priceless.

    Jeff Daniels ("Fly Away Home," "Dumb and Dumber") also delivers a poignant performance as the "soda jerk" whose confusion regarding the disruption of his daily routine eventually leads to his artistic awakening.

    The other supporting performances, including the always fun to watch Don Knotts (TV's "The Andy Griffith Show") and the final appearance by the late J.T. Walsh ("Breakdown," "The Client"), are also uniformly strong.

    Featuring a seamless but mind boggling array of special effects used to create the overlapping color and black and white worlds, the film is very good, but not as great as it could and should be. Had a greater sense of urgency been employed throughout, and a more subtle approach to the symbolism in the third act been used, the film may have become something of a classic. Nonetheless, it's still an enjoyable and pleasant enough diversion that should easily entertain most moviegoers. We give "Pleasantville" a 7.5 out of 10.

    Here's a quick look at the film's content. Profanity is heavy due to 1 use of the "f" word, and the sex/nudity category gets the same rating due to sexually related material that includes heavily suggested female masturbation and characters losing their virginity, etc...

    Bad attitudes are also rated as heavy due to the mob mentality and "racial" hatred that develops toward the end of the film. Beyond some limited violence, however, the rest of the categories have little or no major objectionable content. Should you still be concerned about the film's appropriateness, however, we suggest you take a closer look at what's been listed.

    Of special note for those concerned with repeated bright flashes of light, such moments do occur during a thunderstorm scene.

  • We see a shot of George with a martini on a clip from the TV show, and in the TV show itself.
  • A boy's lip is bloody (and has some blood on his finger) after David punches him.
  • Some may see the siblings brining their 1990's behavior and attitudes into the town and "disrupting" things as having both.
  • Some young men harass David's girlfriend, and later Betty because they're "colored." In addition, many people put up signs stating "No Coloreds allowed" and a conformist mob mentality causes many citizens to develop bad attitudes toward those different from them.
  • In addition, some African Americans may find the film's use of technicolor white people as a parable of "coloreds" who are discriminated against, as somewhat insulting since no black characters appear in the film.
  • None.
  • None.
  • Phrases: "Slutty," "Bitch," "Dorky," "Twerp," "Geez" and "Shut up."
  • None.
  • The film features just a few moments of suspenseful music (most done playfully).
  • None.
  • At least 1 "f" word, 2 "s" words, 5 hells, 1 damn, and 12 uses of "Oh my God," 5 of "Oh God," 4 of "God," 2 uses of "G-damn," and 1 use each of "Jesus Christ" and "Swear to God" as exclamations.
  • In a present day promo for the TV show, the announcer mentions that, among other things, the show features "safe sex" (ie. No sex).
  • As Jennifer comments on the obvious uplifting, 1950's style bra she's wearing, David mentions that the people in the town don't notice things like that.
  • After Skip tells Jennifer he's surprised she went to Lover's Lane with him so soon after being "pinned," she tells him, "Oh Skip, you can pin me anytime you want to," and then says, "Maybe I should just pin you."
  • Later, we hear sexual sounds and heavy breathing and see Skip's convertible rocking back and forth. Skip then pops up from being down on the seat and says that maybe it's time he went home. Jennifer then pops up, breathing hard, and we see that her sweater is open and see her 1950's bra. Skip then mentions that "something's happening," she says "It's supposed to," and then pulls him back down on top of her on the seat.
  • Skip later drops Jennifer off at her home and she says that she had a wonderful time. By his dazed expression, it's suggested that they had sex or fooled around quite heavily.
  • The camera pans past many parked cars at Lover's Lane where the couples are now engaged in some sort of sexual activity (after Jennifer and Skip's encounter) and we see more rocking cars and legs sprawled out from open car doors and over the sides of convertibles.
  • Betty asks Jennifer what goes on at Lover's Lane and wonders if it involves holding hands. Jennifer explains that's part of it, but that it's also about sex. Betty then asks "What is sex?" Jennifer asks if she really wants to know, Betty says yes, and so Jennifer starts telling her, "When two people really love each other very much..." Moments later and after finishing telling her, Jennifer asks Betty, "Are you okay?" Betty says that she is and then adds "Your father wouldn't do anything like that." Jennifer then says, "You know, there are other ways to enjoy yourself -- without dad."
  • We then see Betty in the bathtub as she masturbates. We only see her from the shoulders up, but her surprised and then pleased facial expression, aroused sounds, heavy breathing and repeated uttering of "Oh my goodness" strongly indicate what she's doing. When she finally climaxes, a tree in the front yard simultaneously bursts into flames.
  • David shows Bill a book of classic paintings and among them, they see a picture (of what may be Adam and Eve) that shows male full frontal nudity, and another painting that shows a reclining woman and her bare breasts.
  • Wondering why she's still in black and white and other local girls have changed to color, Jennifer says, "I've had about ten times as much sex as these girls and I'm still in black and white." She then comments on them spending an hour in the back seat of a car and suddenly being in technicolor.
  • We later see a large painting in the diner's window painted by Bill that shows Betty nude (her bare breasts) and reclining, suggesting she posed nude for him.
  • Jennifer smokes a cigarette and then gives it to her friend who smokes it.
  • Later, and in the TV show, Jennifer says she could really use a cigarette.
  • David overhears his real life mother talking on the phone about joint custody of having the kids, but not a great deal is made of the father not being there.
  • Betty's newfound independence is upsetting to George.
  • Conformity versus individualism.
  • The comparison between the freewheeling social mores of today and the seemingly more repressed ones of the 1950's.
  • The film's symbolism of racial hatred, book burning, etc... that occurred in the past (and still occasionally happen today).
  • What the 1950's were really like as compared to the representation presented by TV shows of the time.
  • The film's statement that "true colors" emanate from people displaying their true emotions and feelings.
  • Mob mentality.
  • David comes up and punches another boy (who was harassing Betty) in the face.
  • A mob forms at the diner and a young man throws a rock through Bill's full window painting. Another does the same, and then several men throw a park bench through the window. The mob then breaks into the diner and ransacks the place. Later, the mob also burns many books.
  • Jennifer knees a guy who tries to take a book from her.

  • Reviewed September 23, 1998

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