Pleasantville

Year: 1998
Directed By: Gary Ross
Written By: Gary Ross

RYAN’S REVIEW

This was a recent addition to the collection and didn’t happen until after we had started this blog. I always liked and appreciated this movie but never liked it enough to add it into the collection. Though, given an opportunity to write my thoughts about it, Pleasantville suddenly had a significant reason to be part of our collection. I think the problem with this movie is that it is incomplete. It’s a movie that I think could have been so much better. I think it’s a great idea and great concept trapped between the bookends of a bad story. I think the beginning and end is where this movie fails. Had it been written differently it may have been great as opposed to being somewhere between good and just alright.

This is such an interesting movie. I like to think of it as a representation of the simplicity of innocence. In this society where everyone is completely innocent of the world we see that ignorance really is bliss. In Pleasantville everything is pleasant because the citizens are completely and hopelessly unaware of anything beyond their normal routine. They go about their days as complacent as cattle chewing grass in the pasture unknowingly waiting for their inevitable slaughter. Not that these people are heading to the slaughter, this isn’t a horror movie. However, the people in this movie are just as empty headed as those cows. Completely innocent of knowledge, curiosity, sexuality, and even the basic elements in some cases. It’s so perfect in Pleasantville they’ve never even had a fire, or rain for that matter. Everything in Pleasantville is pleasant until real life people come into the little town and put ideas in the heads of those complacent cows. It starts with something as simple as sex and moves on to the much more dangerous threats to pleasantness, knowledge and awareness.

I love the scene when the dashing young Paul Walker drops off Reese Witherspoon after she just blew his mind on their first trip to Lover’s Lane. The chain reaction that is started can be seen coming by that dopey look on his face as he drives away. Lost in the magic of first time experience he comes to a stop sign and notices a rose that is no longer black and white but suddenly brightly colored. Something new has been introduced into the world of Pleasantville and change has already started on some levels. When Tobey Maguire’s character shows up to basketball practice the next day the whole team is getting the scoop from Walker and there is a terrific scene where suddenly they can’t play basketball very well anymore. Before learning about sex the boys on the Pleasantville basketball team had not only never lost a game but they had never even missed a shot. The natural order of things in the town was immediately disrupted by carnal knowledge. In fact when the mother, played by Joan Allen, touches herself for the first time she not only turns from black and white to color but when she has an orgasm the tree outside her home bursts into flames. For the first time in the history of the town there was a fire. The firemen literally have to be called to action by “cat!” and then have to be shown how to operate the firehose to put out the blaze.

It’s not long after the people of Pleasantville become aware of themselves that they begin to ask questions about everything else. They start to wonder about the world beyond Pleasantville which until this point had never even existed (geography classes consisted of lessons on Main street). They open their minds with books and begin broadening their horizons on many different levels. As the characters change emotionally so do they physically because when they awaken new things within themselves they turn from black and white into color. As the people begin to change so does the world around them. Now, there is nothing pleasant about this change to the black and white folks of Pleasantville. The men that hold dear the never changing status of the town as a representation of innocence and values do not take kindly to seeing their young people walking around in live action colors and filling their heads with new ideas. It was bad enough when these kids were screwing around with one another on Lover’s Lane but when they start going there just to read to one another things progress to a new level. There is a scene where Tobey Maguire takes his girlfriend to Lover’s Lane and the kids there aren’t screwing around anymore but simply reading from the newly available books in the library. As they further broaden their minds the innocence they had in them dwindle more. There is an obvious allusion in this scene to Eve and the Serpeant when Maguire’s girlfriend offers him a red apple as they read together. It represents the loss of innocence and the end of paradise.

When the characters change from black and white into color they have become enlightened to something. Something inside of them has awaken for the first time and it manifests in their change to color. It can be different for all of them. For some of them it’s as simple as becoming sexually aware but that’s not the case for everyone. Reese Witherspoon’s character doesn’t change into color until she begins to learn and experience new things through reading. Tobey Maguire changes when his character finds his courage and stands up to some black and white boys harassing his “colored” mother. The Mayor of Pleasantville, played well by J.T. Walsh, is forced into change when he breaks his pleasant demeanor and exhibits actual anger in front of everyone.

I feel like it’s in the climax, after the Mayor turns to color, when everything in this movie had built up to something but it just didn’t deliver, or simply missed its mark. This is a fascinating movie with awesome ideas but they don’t deliver when they need to. I like how the change resonates with society as a whole in this movie and what that says about society in general. For example, as more people become “colored” the town finds itself divided almost as if in a race war. I like watching the effects of sexuality being introduced into an innocent society and the change that awareness creates. The problem is it all goes nowhere. After the entire town fulfills the change from black and white to color the story stumbles to an ending. It’s vaguely suggested that Pleasantville is no longer an isolated town but now part of the world as a whole, which makes no sense at all. Tobey Maguire goes back to reality, without his sister, and then understands how to help his mother deal with the disappointments of life. It concludes a separate story from the beginning of the film and has no real barring on what went on through the majority of the film, which hadn’t properly been concluded already. The conclusion doesn’t make sense in so many ways, it isn’t even mentioned in reality that Reese Witherspoon’s character is practically gone forever. Not only that but what difference does it make how the story concludes in the real world? The story is about Pleasantville, it’s a waste to end a movie like this with son and irrelevant mother bonding in reality. What happens in reality seems insignificant to all of the themes presented while the movie is taking place in Pleasantville. That’s why we never owned this movie before and what makes this movie a miss when it could have been a hit.

Despite the problems I see in the beginning and end of the movie I still like the film. I grew up watching shows just like Pleasantville because that was what my dad was into. Before the days of TVLand and the streaming opportunities of the internet I remember when shows like Pleasantville were seen regularly because they were the shows played in syndication much like more current shows are now. The Andy Griffith Show, Leave it to Beaver, Happy Daysand the list goes on and on. These shows were the background noise of my life as I grew from a child into a small person. Some of them I couldn’t stand but there are a few classic shows I really do hold dear. The Andy Griffith Show and The Honeymooners are two that I specifically love. So the fact the Don Knotts has a part in this movie makes it especially endearing to me. Knotts was an incredibly funny man and I grew up laughing at his antics. He continued to act in some capacity for the entirety of his life working both in voice and stand in acting up till 2005, only a year before his death in 2006 at the age of 81.

This movie has a terrific cast. The leading duo of Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon are good enough and supported by a great group of actors. The Pleasantville parents are played by Joan Allen and William H. Macy. The late Paul Walker played the popular jock in the Pleasantville high school. Jeff Daniels gives a great performance as the soda shop owner who finds new meaning to life in making art. I have always specifically liked J.T. Walsh as the town mayor and antagonist in the film. Walsh was any many movies I grew up watching throughout the 90s and this was one of his larger roles. Unfortunately Walsh died nearly right after making this movie in 1998 of a sudden heart attack. It’s a shame because he may have just been hitting his stride as an actor but we will never know now.

There is plenty more to say about this movie but I have said enough already. I like Pleasantville despite how I feel about the beginning and end. If I were to consider this movie by listing pros and cons it would be an easy decision because no matter how it tallied up the side that counts Don Knotts is gonna win. I’m glad we own this movie if for no other reason than he makes his last appearance on screen in it. When it comes to whether or not this movie is worth your time I’m iffy. I like it but I’m excusing plenty of problems for various reasons. Despite that I think there is enough in this movie to more than make it worth your time. It’s interesting and offers plenty to think about with a few laughs thrown in the mix.

NEXT MOVIE: Poltergeist (1982)

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