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Thursday, April 24, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 38 - Pleasantville (1998)

Pleasantville (1998); New Line Cinema
Driector: Gary Ross
Writer: Gary Ross
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, William H. Macy, Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen

Americana: The mid-20th Century ideal of white, upper-middle class families in the United States.  You have a husband, a wife, two perfect kids, a dog, a picket fence, a promotion always right around the corner and a feast on the table whenever the husband gets home from work.  There was no bigger advertisement for this Perfect LifeTM than television in the 50’s and 60’s.  The reality of the times, however, did not reflect the escapism of the world we were being sold.  Segregation and discrimination of blacks in America was prevalent, women’s rights were a relatively-new concept that was still not fully embraced, and the Cuban Missile Crisis and news reports of looming death by atomic fire had the Eastern Seaboard cowering in their collective basements.  It was a time of unrest and fear cloaked in a veil of idealism and propaganda.  So, what better way to expose and explore these ideals versus the reality than through a stark contrast?

Pleasantville was the directorial debut of Gary Ross, who specializes in social commentary with his films, the most recent being the successful 2012 film, the Hunger Games.  It is an exploration of the darker side of society as told through the perspective of a few characters living in a once-utopian world.  David is a modern-day American teenager with an obsession for pop-culture.  In-particular, he finds himself lost in escapism while watching his favorite 1950’s television series, Pleasantville: An Ozzie and Harriet nightmare of successful white American perfection.  Long awaiting a marathon of the series, David clashes with his sister Jennifer over possession of the TV after she lands an at-home date with a popular guy from school.  Their struggle leads to the inadvertent destruction of the remote, which (by means of contrivance) renders the television unusable.  So, a mysterious TV repairman (played by the Andy Griffith Show’s Don Knotts in a perfect cameo) arrives with a replacement remote, seemingly out of nowhere.  When the two begin fighting over this new remote the same as the last, they find themselves sucked into Pleasantville through their TV.  Yep.  It is one of THOSE!

Only, unlike other fantasy films of its ilk, Pleasantville actually does something clever with its premise.  Shocking, right?!  After arriving, the two find they have taken over the bodies of the two lead teenagers from the show, Bud and Mary Sue (I love her name here).  They aren’t themselves, they are living the lives of the characters in the show.  However, they remain conscious of their own personalities at the same time, aware of their predicament.  So, they are trapped in a reality that is both familiar and foreign at the same time.  David uses his extensive knowledge of the show, its characters and events to survive and aid his sister in making it out of this prison they’ve created after they find that they are trapped there for at least one week.  

Over the course of the film, Mary Sue and Bud’s modern influences and instincts take over, however, and as a result, they being to alter things.  As ideas that were absent from Pleasantville, like art, literature, king-sized beds, sex and even the outside world are introduced to the unaware fictional characters, things begin to change.  Surroundings and eventually people start appearing in color, and this disturbs the town committee.  After Bud and Mary Sue’s mother finds herself in color, while their father remains in black-and-white, a conflict emerges within their own family.  Ultimately, these changes result in the town banning the new introductions and eventually leads to widespread prejudice against the characters that find themselves in color.  Destruction of art, book burnings, and other acts of violence break out, and the once-perfect world of Pleasantville becomes a reflection of modern, post war America.  

Needless to say, I love this movie.  It takes a smart idea and actually makes it work.  The concept of being sucked into a fictional world was not new at this point, it was just never done particularly well.  The only exception being the personal affection I have for a small 90’s comedy called Stay Tuned, in which a married couple find themselves in Hell, only Hell is a series of increasingly-sadistic television shows (Think, UHF as written by Charles Manson).  However, Pleasantville executes this overused premise originally and cleverly, creating an allegorical commentary on society and how we perceive ourselves and others.  It is about racism, acceptance, sex, romance, censorship, and the furthering of one’s self.  It is a surprisingly-intellectual study given its premise and its predecessors, executed nearly flawlessly.  

A lot of credit goes to Pleasantville’s excellent cast.  This film is a Who’s Who of character actors including Joan Allen, William H. Macy, J. T. Walsh and Jeff Daniels.  Tobey Maguire gives the best performance of his career, Reese Witherspoon is energetic and funny and they both play off each other quite well.  There is even a very solid performance from the late Paul Walker, who shows early promise as a charming-yet-derpy jock. The acting as a whole is good, right down to a scene in City Hall where David (as Bud) gives a speech about tolerance which is an obvious throwback to Gregory Peck’s legendary monologue as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Everything works here, from the references to sitcom cliches to the social commentary thanks to a smart and funny screenplay and the way the film is directed.

This leads me to the production design and effects.  Holy crap is this movie gorgeous.  Even if one does not get all of the more complex ideas of the film, it is undeniable that this movie is a visual work of art.  The black and white creates a very traditional contrast and as things fill with color, such as a bright red apple hanging from a gray tree, and a pink dress against a colorless backdrop, it makes for a vivid and beautiful series of scenes.  This is a breathtaking movie that can and should be enjoyed by most audiences.  It was a success and most movie fans adore it, but if you have not seen this one, it should be a priority “must see”.

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