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Pleasantville

Pleasantville

By Kyle Barrett • February 15th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
PLEASENTVILLE (MOVIE)
New Line Cinema

Original release: October 23rd, 1998
Running time: 124 minutes

Writer and director: Gary Ross

Cast: Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, William H. Macy, Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels, J.T. Walsh

Pleasantville

We all watch television. We have our favourite shows. We watch them many times, over and over. We even learn the key catchphrases of the main characters so that when they say them, no matter how many times we’ve heard it, we still get a kick out of it. Writer and director Gary Ross takes this appreciation and spins it into a fantasy that raises issues including: race, sex and violence in the 1998 film Pleasantville .

Ross gives us modern-day siblings David (Tobey Maguire) and his sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon). Jennifer’s rebellious and popular; David’s a geeky, quiet, somewhat shy teenager. His favourite show is “Pleasantville” a black and white ‘50s sitcom rooted in its conservative, old-fashioned views on family life. After being magically sucked into the show, David and Jennifer have to adapt to their new, ‘50s surroundings.

Getting sucked into a TV land has been looked at before, a riff taken with Peter Hyam’s Stay Tuned (1992), but here we’re given a thoughtful examination of how times have changed and how teenagers feel about history. David knows every episode of “Pleasantville” so when he’s quizzed the answers come so quick it lasts two minutes. Being the opposite of his sister, he’s at a distance with his family.

Jennifer, who isn’t as smart as David, is still able to play the popularity game and even has a small posse that follows her around. So far, they’re just normal teenagers. David is attached to “Pleasantville” because of main characters, a tight-knit, old-fashioned family. His mother (Jane Kaczmarek) is a divorcee who’s barely seen. David retreats into “Pleasantville” for solace. We all rely on the comfort of films and TV. Here, Ross makes it David’s life.

The town of Pleasantville is proud of its conservativeness. Married couples sleep in separate beds and never have sex. In fact, adults don’t know what sex is. This is a TV show where the bits between the edits are missing. David and Jennifer, after being sucked into the show, become Bud and Peggy-Sue. Their parents George (William H. Macy) and Betty (Joan Allen) are your typical, old-fashioned couple. George is the bread winner of the family and Betty’s the housewife. Jennifer can’t cope with this environment, and because she’s so rooted in her popularity and rebel image, she starts to act the way she normally does, going against David’s suggestion that they try to fit in. She starts going out with hot guys and introduces them to the world of sex. This starts to have an impact on the surroundings, turning what was once black and white into vibrant colour. David is able to adapt more quickly because he’s seen all the episodes. He knows everyone and, at times, is able to guess what they’re going to say.

Pleasantville

As Pleasantville begins to change, so do the people. Teenagers embrace their new sexual liberation, and as they do, they become colour. The older, senior members of Pleasantville view it as a disease that’s spreading, causing things to change so fast they can barely keep up. The Mayor (J.T. Walsh) decides to place strict rules on the town, trying to stop the changes from happening and to change everything back to the old, conservative way. We can see the film now as an allegory for the Civil Rights Movement.

Looking at the direction, it’s really well handled. Ross has now become a top director, largely due to his handling on The Hunger Games (2012) adaptation. Here, he takes his time, moving the camera slowly and making use of small, tight shots that become grander and wider as the town becomes more vibrant. The use of colour, obviously, cannot go without mention. It’s a great visual experience through its direction and cinematography, the vibrancy of the reds and blues contrast magnificently with the greys and whites.

The main draw to this film, for everyone, has to be the performances. Maguire is just right as David, able to mature as a character from being a shy, geeky outcast to a strong, confident young man. Witherspoon is able to play both the rebellious side of Jennifer as well the tender, quieter person she becomes with great ease. Macy and Allen are great as the ‘50s man and wife. Macy is able to use facial expressions to say Pleasantvillemore than dialogue. Allen plays the frustration of Betty through quiet gestures and softly spoken dialogue. Jeff Daniels, who plays Bill Johnson, the owner of the diner where David/Bud works, is great. He underplays the character subtly, adding more and more as his character grows. He’s a standout.

Special mention goes to J.T. Walsh who sadly passed away after the film was completed. He’s always been a reliable character actor, notable for villainous roles. Here, he’s given more to do. He plays the Mayor as someone who is affable enough but a bit of a grump. He epitomises the ‘50s conservative era and is able to play him more likeable than what we could’ve expected. Don Knotts has a great cameo as the TV repairman who gives David the magical remote that sucks them into the TV.

Randy Newman provides a lush, romantic score that’s at times somewhat reminiscent of his Toy Story (1995) score. The score fits well within the environment and helps bring out the beauty of the town. It’s an underrated film that was little seen when it was first released. It’s grown into a cult hit and every time you watch it, you appreciate the performances, the direction and the cinematography. Its themes may be obvious and at times, the pace could use some tightening, but the film is a joy. It’s one that I was glad I saw and will continue to watch it.

Kyle Barrett

Kyle Barrett

Kyle Barrett is a PhD student at the University of the West of Scotland. His research focuses on digital film-making and current developments within national cinemas. He also writes and directs several short films and is currently working on the web series Ferocious Bloodaxe.

He also lectures and tutors on practical filmmaking classes.

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