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.