Pleasantville (1998)

D: Gary Ross
S: Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, Joan Allen

Forty years ago, Pleasantville would have been an important film. Not only would it have been technologically radical, its attack on conservatism and the hypocrisy of fifties television as a vision of society would have been both pointed and provocative. Its allusions to racism would have been daring and its emphasis on sex positively shocking. The suggestion that teenagers should have a say in the direction of their own lives would have caused outrage. Of course even forty years ago the film would have come three years after Rebel Without a Cause, which had already shattered the veneer of fifties America with an angry scream of youthful protest at the weak-kneed and repressed adult world. Even ten years ago, Pleasantville would have come as a jokey but relatively effective poke in the eye at the new conservatism that the consumerism of the eighties was bringing in, though it would probably have been produced by Steven Spielberg as an episode of Amazing Stories. It would still have creaked though, and the reviews would have blamed Spielberg for the lack of imagination being exhibited on his show, probably noting with smug irony that that was precisely the point of the thing and isn't that funny? Ha ha ha.

In 1998, Pleasantville is completely inconsequential. It is a tired and obvious retread of ideas thoroughly past their sell by date, flogging the dead horse of fifties wholesomeness in a vain attempt to make a profound statement about moral and social attitudes in the nineties. The basic story has MTV and re-run generation teen siblings Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon magically transported to the world of a bland black & white fifties sitcom called "Pleasantville" by mystical TV repairman Don Knotts, where Witherspoon initiates change despite the protests of her anorak brother. Beginning with her sexual initiation of the high school basketball captain, a new sense of the possibilities of life opens up to the denizens of the town, who formerly obeyed all rituals without thought and were lost and terrified when anything even slightly different happened. Eventually this change manifests itself with the appearance of colour, suggesting that their perspective has shifted to accommodate the richness of life. The town's more conservative elements respond (led by mayor J.T. Walsh) with nazi-style repression, discrimination, and book-burning, only to be eventually overthrown in a courtroom climax which may or may not be a joke about the formulaic resolution of so many of these kinds of dramas.

Bland, obvious, predictable and completely devoid of interest beyond its premise, this is 'high concept' stuff in the mould of The Truman Show. It is occasionally funny, but its attempts at emotional catharsis and 'meaningful' drama are unsuccessful. It never convinces as anything more than a gimmick, and runs through such familiar situations that you begin to wonder if it isn't a parody of itself. It also quickly loses the run of itself even on its own terms, with a lengthy introduction setting up Maguire's encyclopaedic knowledge of the show and its world which never pays off (because everything changes), and a slackly structured slow burn regarding racism which climaxes too abruptly and ends with a set of deliberate improbabilities and unnecessary loose ends. The fact that the children's mother doesn't notice the absence of her daughter at the end is an unintentional but interesting comment upon contemporary society far more meaningful than anything the film actually presents for our consideration.

The cast take it seriously, and there are creditable attempts to ennoble the material with good performances. Joan Allen struggles hard to portray one of those cardboard housewives as a torn and tortured soul and William H. Macy is entertaining as her lost and forgotten husband. Walsh is wonderfully villainous as usual. The presence of Jeff Daniels as a local cafe owner who nourishes a talent for painting and a secret desire for archetypal housewife Allen is merely a painful reminder of Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, which dealt with many of the same ideas, devices and even themes thirteen years earlier and was by far more effective.

Ultimately Pleasantville is a serious waste of time, a feeble, obvious, and overextended beating to death of a one-joke premise. It addresses material done long before much better by too many films, shows and stand up comedy routines to mention and offers only state of the art visual effects and sledgehammer metaphors as a substitute for intelligent writing and direction. It will fill an hour or two on TV when it finally makes it there, and the ultimate irony is that its bland and flavourless satire will then have really found its home with disinterested channel surfers too bored to even press the button. Avoid.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.