Film: Pleasantville

When Pleasantville (1998) turned up on TV over the holiday weekend, I realized I’d never seen it. It’s a well put together, if problematic, high-concept Hollywood portal fantasy. It’s about a sulky teenager named David (Tobey Maguire) who, in order to escape the imperfections of real life, regularly loses himself in the white, suburban fantasy of an old TV sitcom called Pleasantville. When David’s television breaks, a peculiar TV repairman (Don Knotts) shows up to fix it, and magically propels David into the show. The catch? His sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) ends up coming along for the ride, bringing her sexually experienced, non-goody-two-shoes attitude along with her. Jennifer doesn’t know the protocols of Pleasantville’s unchanging, surfacey 1950s landscape, nor does she care. It doesn’t take long before they both become flys in the ointment, upsetting the town’s comfortable stasis to show its citizens — and, of course, themselves — a new way to live.

Pleasantville is nicely assembled, with some funny early moments as it explores its premise. It also has a striking look, with a clever visual conceit: the bland, black-and-white fifties backdrop gradually falls away as David and Jennifer’s contemporary influence gets the citizens of Pleasantville thinking outside the idiot box for once, a process that magically injects color into the world. It’s a well rendered “enlightenment” metaphor, especially early. There’s also effective casting: Maguire and Witherspoon are perfect for their parts, as are Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels, and William H. Macy as cardboard sitcom characters forced to see beyond the confines of their traditional roles.

Alas, something doesn’t sit right with me about this one. The structure’s too formulaic, the thematic destination too predictable. While it’s clever, it also manages to be obvious and simplistic. Most troubling, there’s something tone deaf about the way it leverages discrimination language as the black-and-white citizens become “colored.” This may be the whitest film ever made, and obviously it’s deliberate, practically built into the premise, but, yeah, it probably shouldn’t have gone there. There’s also premise fatigue late in the film, particularly during the climactic courtroom scene near the end.

A mixed reaction, then: I can understand how it did well, and there are aspects of its craft worth appreciating, but it also left a weird taste in my mouth. An interesting watch.

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