Pleasantville (review)

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‘Tis an Ill Wind that Blows No Minds

There’s an awful lot of talk these days about how things used to be so much better. And it seems to me that a lot of it is coming from boomers who, as media-unsavvy children of the 50s, internalized the fantasies that were thrown at them from the new wonderland of television: Father Knows Best, Donna Reed, and Leave It to Beaver showed them the perfection that was their world. Never mind that it was fiction.

Skip over the cynical and extremely media-savvy Gen Xers (who even as children got that The Brady Bunch was a joke) and you get to the Millennials, kids who are teens now, like Pleasantville‘s David (Tobey Maguire). David’s boomer Mom, divorced and lonely, complains that things aren’t supposed to be this way — she’s got the right car and the right house and still she isn’t happy. David — raised by a woman raised by television — has obviously internalized some of his mother’s attitudes: He’s a big fan of Pleasantville, a 50s sitcom about a perfect family, and he seems torn between enjoying Pleasantville as hokum and longing for that perfect life.
And then, one night, just as David is settling in for a 24-hour Pleasantville marathon on cable, the television’s remote control breaks — the TV is one of those new ones that won’t work without the clicker. As luck would have it, a mysterious TV repairman (Don Knotts) shows up, gives David a weird new remote control, and disappears. Fighting over the clicker with his sister, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), they accidentally hit — gulp — that big red button, and both get zapped right into the black-and-white world of Pleasantville.

David and Jennifer are now Bud and Mary Sue Parker, perky teens in a world where perkiness is just about the only emotion going. Their “mom,” Betty (Joan Allen), joyfully has a lumberjack’s breakfast on the table every morning and meatloaf on the table every night. And you can tell that “dad” George (William H. Macy) loves his kids, if in that distant paternal way, because he calls them Sport and Muffin.

Don Knotts as Satan? Sly and sinister, his TV repairman is the serpent offering the town of Pleasantville the apple — here in the form of David and Jennifer, who introduce the town to books, art, sex, even the hedonistic pleasure of standing out in a rainstorm. (If there’s any doubt that Pleasantville is a fantasy, just watch for the scene with all the young people lined up outside the library, eager to read anything they can get their hands on.) And the townsfolk literally start blossoming, going full Technicolor as their horizons expand.

Jokes abound as Pleasantville changes. The department store starts selling — gasp! — double beds. An unhappy husband displays a bowling shirt his suddenly inattentive wife has scorched with the iron. Teenagers are necking in the streets. Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels), the soda jerk and closet artist, starts painting nudes.

Not everyone is happy with this ill wind blowing through town. Pleasantville’s mayor, Big Bob (the late J.T. Walsh), still black-and-white and damn proud of it, leads a crackdown on the “coloreds.” Pleasantville turns into an allegory on bigotry, sure, but it’s also a reminder of what ultimately makes the kinds of freedoms that David and Jennifer bring to Pleasantville possible: the responsibility that goes hand in hand — or should — with the rights we’re so quick to demand. Mr. Johnson paints a color mural on the side of the police station depicting the new experiences the coloreds are enjoying, to the shock and consternation of the black-and-whites, and the controversy that develops sounds suspiciously like the current debate over pornography on the Internet — keeping evil things from young eyes and all that. The black-and-whites of the world may see only the dangers freedom brings, but those of us who enjoy our freedom need to acknowledge that some of those dangers do exist and accept the responsibility to keep those dangers in check.

Written and directed by Gary Ross, who wrote those other delightful fantasies Big and Dave, Pleasantville is like a flip slide to The Truman Show, to which it has been vociferously compared. Where Truman let its hero break free of the confining, pretend perfection of his world, Pleasantville lets its heroes break down the walls of a perfect world and let the outside in. It’s an important distinction. Truman’s was a personal story, about finding the strength within ourselves to be ourselves. Pleasantville works on a wider scale, showing the order and chaos, beauty and ugliness of a society full of people who’ve discovered themselves.

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