×

Pleasantville

Ingeniously conceived and impressively executed, "Pleasantville" is a provocative, complex and surprisingly anti-nostalgic parable wrapped in the beguiling guise of a commercial high-concept comedy.

With:
David/Bud - Tobey Maguire Mr. Johnson - Jeff Daniels Betty - Joan Allen George - William H. Macy Big Bob - J.T. Walsh Jennifer/Mary Sue - Reese Witherspoon TV Repairman - Don Knotts Skip - Paul Walker Margaret - Marley Shelton David and Jennifer's Mom - Jane Kaczmarek

Ingeniously conceived and impressively executed, “Pleasantville” is a provocative, complex and surprisingly anti-nostalgic parable wrapped in the beguiling guise of a commercial high-concept comedy. Screenwriter Gary Ross (“Big,” “Dave”) is nothing if not ambitious in his feature directing debut. And while he occasionally blunts the satirical edge of his material by obfuscating his intentions, pic shapes up as a significant mid-autumn B.O. contender with even rosier ancillary prospects.

Clever opening scenes establish the squeaky-clean, reassuringly bland universe of “Pleasantville,” a quaint ’50s sitcom that has developed a loyal cult following on a ’90s cable network. (Think “Father Knows Best,” only more so.) David (Tobey Maguire), a contemporary suburban teenager, is an obsessed devotee of the series.

For a shy kid living in a broken home with his divorced mom (Jane Kaczmarek) and sometimes hostile teen sister (Reese Witherspoon), “Pleasantville” represents an addictively comforting black-and-white view of nuclear family life in a cheery small town. But David soon discovers that, while it’s a great place to visit, he wouldn’t want to live there.

Popular on Variety

When David settles in for a “Pleasantville” marathon and his sister, Jennifer, wants to watch an MTV concert, they struggle for the remote control. It breaks during their tussle, which cues the unbeckoned arrival of an aggressively affable but vaguely sinister TV repairman (Don Knotts), who offers the siblings a brand new, high-tech remote.

The first time they use the device, David and Jennifer are magically transported into “Pleasantville,” where they assume the identities of Bud and Mary Sue, the model teen children of paradigmatic ’50s sitcom parents: George (William H. Macy), a chipper businessman whose business is never explained, and Betty (Joan Allen), an impeccably dressed and coifed housewife who makes Donna Reed look positively grungy.

For a brief stretch, pic comes across as a standard-issue fish-out-of-water comedy, as Bud and Mary Sue struggle to fit into a black-and-white world where the people, the weather and the overall mood are, well, pleas-ant. The temperature is always 72, bathrooms have no toilets, married couples sleep in twin beds, firemen exist only to retrieve cats from trees — and sex simply doesn’t exist. Since David is well-versed in “Pleasantville” trivia, he finds it relatively easy to assume his new role. Indeed, despite some understandable uneasiness, he’s generally happy — and not just because, as a member of the high school basketball team, he scores each time he shoots.

But Jennifer is far more discontented — at least, until she meets Skip (Paul Walker), a hunky high school senior who’s eager to go steady with Mary Sue. When they drive to the local lovers’ lane for some innocent hand-holding, Jennifer takes control of the situation and relieves Skip of his virginity. And with that, a bold new life force is introduced to Pleasantville.

At first, only flowers reveal their natural colors. But then the virus starts to spread, and soon some of the other sexually awakened teens blossom with vibrant flesh tones. Another kind of blossoming begins as Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels), owner of the local malt shop where Bud works, fulfills his long-repressed desire to become an artist. More important, he unleashes his long-repressed desires for Betty — who responds in kind.

As he gradually subverts the hermetically sealed fantasyland of a ’50s sitcom with impolite urges and incon-venient passions, Ross reveals his own true colors. Some of the changes in “Pleasantville” are as liberating as they are hilarious, especially when Betty — at the urging of her daughter — discovers sensual pleasure by ex-ploring her own body. But while introducing the joys of real-world passions, David and Jennifer inadvertently unleash much darker forces: intolerance, paranoia, even mob violence. The tradition-minded citizens, led by mayor Big Bob (the late J.T. Walsh, in his last screen role), don’t understand what’s going on in their town, but they know they don’t like it.

To a certain degree, Ross is belaboring an obvious point: Those fondly remembered sitcoms of yesteryear really were self-justifying advertisements for a paternalistic, rigorously regimented society that valued confor-mity above all else.

The most intriguing thing about “Pleasantville” is that Ross wants to have it both ways, and largely succeeds. At its worst, the comedy indicates, Pleasantville is a place where the locals skirt perilously close to fascism when their way of life is threatened. But that way of life may have much to offer: The longer Jennifer stays, the more she grows as an individual — she even starts to read books — and the less she feels the need to play the role of a hip and promiscuous ’90s teen.

By insisting on ambiguity, Ross occasionally clouds the issues that he intelligently and humorously raises. The final third of the comedy is unduly protracted, suggesting that the writer-director wanted to cover all his bases while grappling with the need to provide a dramatically and emotionally satisfying conclusion. Tighter, more focused storytelling might have helped, though Ross is to be commended for refusing to take the easy way out.

In a uniformly excellent ensemble cast, Macy is a standout with a performance that balances straight-arrow caricature with unexpectedly affecting poignancy. Allen is equally effective in her subtle transformation from docile Stepford Wife to yearning free spirit, while Daniels conveys the wistful trepidation of a man who’s confused about his newfound happiness. Maguire and Witherspoon are adept at playing strangers in a strange land, and do much to ground the fantastic premise in something resembling reality.

Of course, “Pleasantville” wouldn’t work at all without the extraordinary work of an all-star production team that includes cinematographer John Lindley, production designer Jeannine Oppewall, visual effects supervisor Chris Watts and, perhaps most important, color effects designer Michael Southard. The striking juxtapositions of color and black-and-white in key scenes are dazzling. But it’s the overall persuasiveness of the high-tech wizardry that truly elevates Ross’ fairy tale above the level of mere gimmickry.

Pleasantville

Production: A New Line Cinema release of a Larger Than Life production. Produced by Jon Kilik, Robert J. Degus, Steven Soderbergh, Gary Ross. Executive producers, Michael De Luca, Mary Parent. Co-producers, Allen Alsobrook, Allison Thomas, Edward Lynn, Andy Borowitz, Susan Borowitz. Directed, written by Gary Ross.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color/B&W), John Lindley; editor, William Goldenberg; music, Randy Newman; music supervisor, Bonnie Greenberg; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; art director, Dianne Wager; costume designer, Judianna Makovsky; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Robert Anderson Jr.; visual effects supervisor, Chris Watts; color effects designer, Michael Southard; casting, Ellen Lewis, Debra Zane. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala), Sept. 16, 1998. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 123 MIN.

With: David/Bud - Tobey Maguire Mr. Johnson - Jeff Daniels Betty - Joan Allen George - William H. Macy Big Bob - J.T. Walsh Jennifer/Mary Sue - Reese Witherspoon TV Repairman - Don Knotts Skip - Paul Walker Margaret - Marley Shelton David and Jennifer's Mom - Jane Kaczmarek

More Film

  • Premature

    'Premature': Film Review

    There’s poetry in “Premature” — literally, if not always cinematically. Zora Howard, a spoken word artist and sometime actor who reunites with director Rashaad Ernesto Green for his second feature (they collaborated more than a decade earlier on a short of the same name), plays Ayanna, a tentatively romantic Harlem teenager navigating a relationship for [...]

  • Jamila Wenske

    Berlin: Jamila Wenske's Achtung Panda! Producing 'Elbow,' 'Arabic Interpreter' (EXCLUSIVE)

    German producer Jamila Wenske of Berlin-based Achtung Panda! Media has boarded two upcoming projects that explore facets of the immigrant experience in Germany. Asli Özarslan’s “Elbow” follows the turbulent life of a young Turkish woman in Berlin and her decision to move to Istanbul, while Ali Kareem Obaid’s “The Arabic Interpreter” centers on a frustrated, [...]

  • Harvey Weinstein deliberation

    Weinstein Jury Ends Day With Request for Annabella Sciorra's Testimony, No Verdict

    The jurors in the Harvey Weinstein trial ended their third day of deliberations on Thursday with a request to hear the testimony of Annabella Sciorra. The jury has now been deliberating for more than 14 hours, and will return for further deliberations on Friday morning. In a note to the judge late Thursday afternoon, the [...]

  • Goldie Hawn Bette Midler Diane Keaton

    Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler and Diane Keaton Re-Team for 'Family Jewels' Comedy

    Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler and Diane Keaton are starring in the family comedy “Family Jewels” for New Republic Pictures. It’s a reunion for the trio, 24 years after they starred in the Paramount comedy “The First Wives Club.” New Republic is planning a 2020 production start for “Family Jewels.” New Republic principals Brian Oliver and [...]

  • EFM Euro Film Policy Seminar

    Berlin: European Film Policy Seminar Examines Changing Landscape

    The Berlinale’s European Film Market opened on Thursday with the inaugural European Film Politics Seminar, offering a look at the pressing challenges facing independent European producers in a fast-changing landscape increasingly dominated by the growing number of U.S. streaming giants. The seminar was hosted by Steven Gaydos, executive vice president of global content of Variety. [...]

  • Parasite

    'Parasite' to Get Digitally Re-Mastered Imax Release for One Week

    Imax is releasing a digitally re-mastered version of Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” for a one-week run at select Imax locations starting Friday. “Parasite” is the first non-English-language movie ever to win the Oscar for best picture. The South Korean film took in $5.7 million at 2,002 domestic locations during the post-Oscar weekend, lifting its cumulative [...]

  • My Salinger Year

    'My Salinger Year': Film Review

    A writer writes, but there’s no evidence that Joanna Rakoff can even type when she takes the job as an assistant working for literary agent Phyllis Westberg in “My Salinger Year.” Because Rakoff went on to pen a book-length memoir about her time working for Westberg, who represented reclusive writer J.D. Salinger, we can rest [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content