Color Guard

At the beginning of Gary Ross's Pleasantville, fraternal twins who are unhappy suburban teenagers (is there any other kind?) fall down the rabbit hole of their television set and find themselves trapped in a parallel universe: a Fifties sitcom of the same name in which the family is more idealized than in The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, sweeter than in Father Knows Best. In this black-and-white realm, they are the brother-and-sister TV characters Bud and Mary Sue Parker -- "Sport" and "Muffin," to their chirpy dad. Prim and proper Mom piles mountains of blueberry pancakes, bacon, and ham steak onto their breakfast plates, and the kids' freshly scrubbed classmates at Pleasantville High tell them how "swell" and "keen" things are. In Pleasantville, where the temperature is always 72 and rain never falls, a big night out consists of dropping by the malt shop for a cheeseburger and a cherry Coke, then holding hands in lovers' lane.

What to do? Equipped with Nineties sensibilities and plagued by Nineties worries, the siblings, David and Jennifer (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon), are unlikely residents of the never-never land of 1958 small-town America. David may be a trivia fan who knows every Pleasantville rerun inside out, but that doesn't mean he wants to live there.

Sounds like pretty cute stuff, doesn't it? Join the bloodlines of Back to the Future and The Truman Show, crossbreed into The Wizard of Oz, and there you have it -- perky entertainment with some gentle lessons about growing up.

Fortunately, filmmaker Ross doesn't have heartwarming fantasy on his mind. And it turns out he's not really interested in our obsession with television. Instead, he's taken the ancient comedy riff of the fish-out-of-water and refashioned it as a hilarious but surprisingly dark allegory about sexual repression and social intolerance. The satiric messages sneak up on you, but they arrive just the same.

In the hermetic isolation of Pleasantville, nonconformity breeds contempt. Censoring a jukebox precedes burning library books. Adding color to your gray life prompts shopkeepers to post signs warning "No coloreds." Ross's velvet glove conceals an iron first. His punching power is something we might have expected: As co-writer of the body-switching comedy Big (1988), he examined not only the trauma of childhood, but also the folly of maturity; as the writer of the Capra-esque farce Dave (1993), he suggested that an ordinary guy with his heart in the right place would make a better chief executive than any politician. To understand the motivation behind Pleasantville, which Ross wrote, directed, and co-produced, it doesn't hurt to dig a little deeper into his resume. Aside from his movie work, he's a Democratic Party activist and sometime political speechwriter; his father, also a screenwriter, was blacklisted in the McCarthy-Hoover era.

Little wonder that when David and Jennifer drop into a Fifties sitcom, they cast aside play-acting to become revolutionaries. Once David sees through the social myths of Pleasantville, he starts revamping the TV show's episodes as he lives them. Sister Jennifer doesn't want to be there at all ("We're, like, stuck in Nerdville!" she protests), but she eventually uses raw passion, then intellect, to reinvent an entire fiction. Pleasantville's most appealing (and most grandiose) conceit, then, is that two teenagers imbued with the diversity politics of the Nineties can liberate the Eisenhower years.

Not even Don Knotts, a nostalgia-TV icon of major proportions, can stop them: Knotts plays the enigmatic TV repairman who transports the kids to Pleasantville, but they defy him, too, once their mission becomes clear.

In this fantasy David and Jennifer literally revivify what Ross sees as a soulless, colorless era. Using more than 1700 digital visual effects, movie technicians Chris Watts and Michael Southard slowly transform uptight, gray-scale Pleasantville into a Technicolor dream of possibilities. First we see a pink blush on a single rose. Next a Thunderbird convertible glows pale green. Once the floodgates of emotion have been opened, the town brightens like magic. The local soda jerk (Jeff Daniels) is reborn as a painter, and he coats the malt shop windows with his vivid pictures. Bud and Mary Sue's conventional mother (Joan Allen) discovers her womanhood and bursts into a vision of creamy skin tones, blue dresses, and ruby lips. The teens' friends awaken to a world in many hues. Even monochromatic Dad (William H. Macy) is transformed. A bit later so is civic booster and crypto-dictator Big Bob (the late character actor J.T. Walsh, in his final screen performance). Remember the old "objective correlative" from lit class? In Pleasantville color is freedom itself.

Here and there the movie gives off a whiff of solemn artiness, and the effects people are so busy playing with their electronic crayons that our attention is sometimes diverted. But this uncommonly clever, surprisingly poignant fairy tale packs a social wallop we're not quite prepared for. Right-wingers will probably hate it.

But as an act of liberal imagination, Pleasantville may be just the tonic that beleaguered Americans can use now, when so many citizens are once more viewing our national life in black and white.

Pleasantville.
Written and directed by Gary Ross. Starring Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, J.T. Walsh, and Jeff Daniels.

 
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