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The longer a reviewer writes about movies, the wider the gap between him and the reader. (I’m referring here to journalists who take their jobs seriously, not hacks who freeload on studio junkets and rewrite press kits in the guise of criticism.) Each year, the reviewer grows crankier, more jaded, harder to please. This is not to say that he can no longer distinguish between, say, a well-crafted action picture (Speed) and a soporific mess (Speed 2). But, inevitably, the 100th roller-coaster ride isn’t as exciting as the first. The reviewer looks for new stimulationsfresh ideas, forms, and emotionsto revive the waning passion for moviegoing.
When such breakthrough films appear, however, they are generally too esoteric to attract people who do not spend half their working lives in screening rooms. An example: John Greyson’s Lilies, a picture that bowled me over earlier this year. The things that made Lilies fascinating for methe complex narrative style, the incorporation of themes and devices from modernist theater, the unapologetic depiction of transgressive sexualitylimit the film’s potential audience to a handful of adventurous, sophisticated viewers. As much pleasure as a smart, offbeat movie like Lilies affords, it falls short of realizing the democratic ideal of filmmaking: the creation and exhibition of commonly accessible art.
A loud buzz late last spring promised that The Truman Show was such a moviesufficiently entertaining to amuse a mass audience yet filled with trenchant insights about media culture. It turned out to be little more than elegantly crafted fluff, a handsome, toothless pseudo-satire with a fairy-tale denouement. I am delighted to report that Pleasantville, Gary Ross’ directorial debut, achieves everything that The Truman Show’s claque promised, and more. Intelligent, funny, innovative, and touching, it’s that rarest of all things, a substantial work of art that anybody can enjoy.
Ross, who also wrote and produced Pleasantville, goes well beyond the entertainingly conventional screenplays he concocted for Big and Dave. With its echoes of Poltergeist and the Back to the Future trilogy, Ross’ central premisea set of contemporary teenage twins are transported to, and become trapped in, the black-and-white world of a ’50s television sitcomseems, at first, comfortingly familiar. But the filmmaker uses this device as a departure point to make us see, feel, and think in ways that commercial filmmakers seldom dare.
David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) represent too many contemporary teens. Dad’s gone. Mom’s either working or weekending with her younger boyfriend. Their education catalogs impending disastersthe spread of HIV, the depletion of the ozone layer, the collapsing international economyand their surroundings are faceless suburban sprawl, the Disneyfication of the American dream. Assertive Jennifer’s energies are largely devoted to seducing hunky classmates. Introverted David escapes to an imaginary past by watching vintage family comedy reruns on the TV Time (read: Nickelodeon) cable network. He knows all the dialogue by heart, so he isn’t totally disoriented when, as the result of an enigmatic television repairman’s machination, he and Jennifer find themselves transported to Pleasantville, the setting of a once-popular 1958 sitcom. (Casting The Andy Griffith Show veteran Don Knotts as the repairman is the first of Ross’ many witty strategies.)
Pleasantville is a monochromatic, antiseptic Nelson/Cleaver world, composed of nuclear families, civic-minded neighbors, and cloudless skies. Firemen exist only to rescue fluffy kittens from trees. Every basketball toss swishes through the hoop. Bathrooms contain no toilets, and married couples sleep chastely in separate beds. Breakfasts feature heart-arresting quantities of cholesterolic goodies. In short, Pleasantville is America’s Eisenhower idealization of itself, the fantasy that conservative politicians vainly promise to resurrect.
Ross begins by exploiting the comic possibilities of two modern teens “stuck in Nerdsville,” in Jennifer’s apt phrase, especially in his presentation of their new “parents.” Besuited, ever-smiling George (William H. Macy) heads out to the office each morning armed with a briefcase and returns to shout “Honey, I’m home” before supper time. Betty (Joan Allen) spends the day homemaking in her starched Barbara Billingsley petticoats and shirtwaist dresses. More shrewd casting: Macy’s big-eared Howdy Doody face has finally found a suitable non-David Mamet role to inhabit, and Allen, our decade’s reed-slim embodiment of marital dissatisfaction (The Ice Storm, Nixon, The Crucible), recapitulates, then explodes, that imprisoning stereotype.
Pleasantville offers a perfect existence, free of the pitfalls and deprivations of the present, but its security exacts a terrible price. It’s a safe but stagnant world, lacking creativity, sexuality, challenge, spontaneity. Jennifer and David introduce hitherto forbidden knowledge to this denatured Eden with both liberating and devastating consequences. Convinced that “nobody’s happy in a poodle skirt and sweater set,” concupiscent Jennifer shakes up the town with an infusion of ’90s eroticism. Predictably, she creates a stir among her classmates and, in one of the movie’s sharpest visual gags, shares some autoerotic info with Betty that results in an orgasmic conflagration.
Vulnerable David initially finds Pleasantville’s stasis comforting, a respite from his hollow home life. But the town’s intellectual barrenness stifles him. He brings an art history book to his boss Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels), proprietor of the local soda shop. Seeing reproductions of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Cezanne canvases triggers a latent creative impulse in Johnson, which ultimately changes not only his existence, but Betty’s as well.
As some of Pleasantville’s inhabitants slowly awaken to the realization that life cannot be viewed in simplistic blacks and whites, color gradually seeps into Ross’ images. At first, only a few touchesa rose, a brake light, grass, bubble gum. After Betty discovers her sexuality, she becomes a “colored” person, and fearfully hides behind a black-and-white makeup mask to avoid being ostracized by her neighbors.
Of the film’s many layers, its racial theme is the most obvious, especially when shopkeepers place “No Coloreds” signs in their windows. But Pleasantville is constructed as a multilevel allegory that allows numerous, sometimes conflicting readings, of which I will suggest only a few. It works as a gender critique, contrasting contemporary images of women with the sexism promulgated by pop entertainment four decades ago. It can also be viewed as a political parable, specifically an inversion of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which questions the fear-driven conformity imposed by McCarthyism. Those so inclined may view it as a religious parable, with Knotts as God, the town’s first rainfall as baptismal, and the brilliantly hued rainbow arching over the monochromatic town (a breathtaking image) as a divine omen. Ross emphatically deals with the question of censorship, no doubt to avenge the plight of his screenwriter father, a victim of Hollywood blacklisting. As some of Pleasantville’s citizens start exercising their creativity and intellectual freedom, their neighbors launch a campaign of repression, burning books and confiscating “unpleasant” artworks. Subversive gestures counter this crackdown: Johnson paints a protest mural on the side of the police station, and his “colored” comrades chant their defiance in a rock ‘n’ roll anthem.
What’s so unusual about Pleasantville is Ross’ refusal to oversimplify the complex issues his film raises. He does not dismiss the anxiety-free community’s simplistic civility, which has a salutary effect on Jennifer. (Among other things, she develops a passion for learning and curbs her indiscriminate libido.) And he’s cannily figured out a way to conclude the movie on a dramatically satisfying note without compromising its content. In the closing reel, Pleasantville’s citizens gather for a town meeting to deal with the disruptions affecting their community. (This Capraesque device, which has survived in Tucker and In and Out, among other contemporary pictures, generally functions as a means to resolve narrative conflicts in a blandly consensual, reactionary manner.) The people of the town ultimately agree, however, upon an essentially radical position: that life’s only constant is change.
Remarkable for the maturity and resonance of its content, Pleasantville deserves equal praise for its visual style. Ross has ingeniously grounded his ideas in cinematic forms. What the movie does and what it says are inseparable, a fusion achieved only in fully realized works of art. It’s also a breakthrough technical feat, incorporating more than 1,700 digital special-effects shots. And then there’s Randy Newman’s resourceful musical score that cleverly incorporates late ’50s recordings ranging from Top 40 pop”Mr. Blue,” “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear”to Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck’s signature pieces.
It’s frustrating to discuss Pleasantville without ruining its surprises. I have been biting my tongue to keep from describing the exquisite, neo-surrealist moment in which Betty inadvertently exposes her secret inner life. But, as in Ross’ film, repression leads to liberation. Pleasantville’s release frees me to close with a sentence that I’d love to be able to write at the end of every review:
This movie is a masterpiece.CP