Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Review: Pleasantville (1998)

Pleasantville (1998)

Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements emphasizing sexuality, and for language

Score: 5 out of 5

Pleasantville is an unsung classic, and one of the greatest films of the '90s. Sure, daring indies and transgressive counterculture flicks like Clerks, Natural Born Killers, and Pulp Fiction might be better remembered today as emblematic of '90s cinema, but this movie deserves its place right alongside them. It's a movie that, in lesser hands, could've been either a parade of terrible gags about '50s sitcoms or a great big pile of sappy, heavy-handed schmaltz, but instead, it turns into a brilliant exploration of nostalgia, bigotry, and reaction to social change. It's all brought together by great writing, gorgeous visual design, and a highly talented cast of actors both young and old.

Our two protagonists are the teenage siblings David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon). David is a geeky kid who has been binge-watching reruns of Pleasantville, a saccharine family sitcom from the 1950s in the vein of Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. Ostensibly, he's watching it in order to take part in the TV Time cable network's trivia contest and win a thousand dollars, though as he watches it, he increasingly comes to identify with the wholesome family values presented on the show, which stand as a stark contrast to his own life in the late '90s, characterized by divorced parents at home and seemingly all-encroaching social ills in the world around him. Jennifer, meanwhile, is a free-spirited and very modern (well, for the late '90s, at least) teenage girl who dresses in revealing clothes and regularly sleeps with boys. After the two of them get into an argument over the use of the living room TV that ends with the remote getting smashed, they are greeted at the door by a mysterious, elderly TV repairman who provides David with a very strange new remote on account of him being a knowledgeable fan of Pleasantville. This remote winds up sucking the two of them directly into the show, where they find themselves inhabiting the bodies and lives of Bud and Mary Sue Parker, the two teenage protagonists. While searching for a way to get back home, they must interact with the townsfolk and the exaggerated rules of the '50s sitcom world they now inhabit, a world where things like color, the outside world, black people, and real problems that can't be solved in one episode simply do not exist. Of course, since David and Jennifer are human beings, not paragons of virtue written by TV writers in a more censored time, they inevitably start breaking from the routine, Trouble starts when they introduce people to things like aspirations, art, learning, and -- gasp! -- sex. Color begins to seep in -- a red rose here, a bubble of pink gum there -- as the characters on the show also learn to start breaking the rules, in the process making the town look more like the actual, historical '50s than the anodyne world of the show. Not everybody takes well to the changes going on, however...

This is a film that sneaks up on you as to what it's actually about, even if it's fairly open with its themes and message from the start. Initially, David and Jennifer's arrival in Pleasantville is played for jokes, with such sight gags as a basketball team that literally cannot lose, married couples sleeping in separate single beds in the same room (because the show's writers couldn't so much as imply sex), firemen whose main job is to rescue cats from trees rather than put out fires (because nothing can actually burn), and things like holding hands and giving a girl one's pin being seen as daring romantic gestures. Here's the thing, though: while those scenes are meant to be funny, they're not jokes. At about the hour mark, it grows increasingly clear that this film has in fact been engaging in a very careful world-building exercise. Without giving spoilers, this movie takes a very dark turn after one scene in particular halfway through. While the world of the show starts out as land of upstanding citizens and wholesome goodness, and later takes on other, less wholesome elements of '50s nostalgia (fast cars, rock 'n' roll, greasers, trips to "Lovers' Lane"), by the end it's also showing us the side of the '50s that usually doesn't make it into the nostalgia specials: the growing, bubbling discontent lying just beneath society's whitewashed exterior aching to crack the surface, and the reactionary backlash that followed whenever it did. The '50s weren't just the decade of Ike, Elvis, and the Edsel, they were also the decade of the Beat Generation, modern art, the Warren Court, civil rights protests, and women moving into the workforce and higher education in vast numbers, and not everybody took all of this lying down. It's a little-known secret of the '60s and '70s: the most notoriously rowdy and libertine decades in American history likely would never have happened if the groundwork hadn't been laid for them in the '50s. The whole myth of the '50s as being moralistic and uptight undoubtedly has some truth to it, at least in its sanitized popular culture, but the exaggerated version of it, promoted by both those seeking a return to what they see as a "better" time and by those seeking to get away from it, is a facade that masks what the decade was actually like.

And the world of Pleasantville is a beautiful metaphor for that facade. On the surface, it looks like the '50s that Ronald Reagan idealized and built so much national mythmaking around, and even in the early phases of the changes that David and Jennifer inadvertently wreak, it's the '50s as we choose to remember it through shows like Happy Days and films like Grease and American Graffiti. After the opening set in 1998, the film turns into a gorgeous black-and-white recreation of a period sitcom, slowly adding punches of color to the frame symbolizing the changes that David and Jennifer bring with them. They absolutely nailed the look, between the cinematography, Gary Ross' direction, and the great special effects used to add and remove color from nearly every shot, producing a film that is visually breathtaking at times. But as we move further into the film, that contrast between monochrome and color slowly takes on a darker meaning. Interactions between those townsfolk who are still in black-and-white versus those who have been colorized turn ominous, especially once the film starts borrowing influence from the imagery of the civil rights movement. Handled poorly, this film could've flown off the rails in these later scenes, descending into a mess of allegories that are as subtle as an anvil to the head yet fall apart with scrutiny. Again, it's a testament to Ross' talent as a filmmaker, between his writing and the striking imagery he uses to show us the continued march of color, that it not only stays on track, but culminates in a powerful finale.

It's the cast and characters who pull it together in the end. Given that this is a film in which people become colorized only when they become more well-rounded human beings, it was necessary that all of the major players not only get plenty of development, but get actors who can carry them through that evolution. William H. Macy and Joan Allen, as the Parker family patriarch George and the happy housewife Betty, nail it as the archetypal '50s sitcom parents in the beginning, but their performances continue to shine through as George slowly turns into a reactionary grouch while Betty is confronted by self-doubt and the knowledge of sex (taught to her by Jennifer in a humorous inversion of "the talk"). Jeff Daniels is great as Bill Johnson, the malt shop owner and cook who we learn feels constrained by the small town he's in, eventually turning to art as an outlet, as is Marley Shelton as the "good girl" Margaret Henderson who falls for David. But the most important players here are Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon, and not just because both of them deliver outstanding performances. Personal growth and learning are two-way streets here, and just as David and Jennifer liberate Pleasantville from its stultifying culture, they too must learn from it if they are to be colorized. For David, it's about letting go of misplaced nostalgia and learning to embrace things as they really are, while for Jennifer, it's her realizing that her life before she came to Pleasantville was on a dead-end track and learning to put more effort into her studies as opposed to boys and parties. This is what sealed the deal for me: the fact that, for all its lighthearted jabs at, and eventually much more serious deconstruction of, our nostalgia for the "good old days", this film then puts the shoe on the other foot and makes demands of its more "enlightened" protagonists -- and, by extension, the audience they're serving as a surrogate for -- as well. The only thing I can really fault the film for is an ending that, without spoilers, leaves a huge unanswered question concerning one important character, but measured against the film as a whole, even an admittedly real problem seems tiny in comparison, and works better thematically than in terms of coherence.

The Bottom Line:

This film makes for an excellent live-action companion to The Iron Giant in the sense of both films being biting, yet sympathetic, satires of how we view the past. It's not just a smart comedy (though it is that too), it's a hands-down classic that tackles serious issues that still carry relevance today with confidence and depth. An absolutely amazing film.

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