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.
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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.
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.