Retro Film Review: Pleasantville (1998)
One of the least appreciated aspects of many great films was in their political agendas. Those agendas aren't often mentioned because the ideology behind them is unacceptable or at least very controversial in modern times. For example, Birth of a Nation is often associated with white American racism, Battleship Potemkin is seen as celebration of Bolshevik revolutionary terror while the classic works of Leni von Riefenstahl can't be separated from the ideology of National Socialism. But the political agendas aren't in the exclusive domain of the past. Even the modern day Hollywood – institution primarily dedicated to providing entertainment to the masses and making money for the entertainers - can slip certain political agendas into its products. Few such products had their political agenda as explicit as in the case of Pleasantville, 1998 fantasy comedy written and directed by Gary Ross.
At first glance, the plot of Pleasantville looks more like a typical Hollywood "high concept" than political propaganda. It starts in present day America with typical 1990s dysfunctional family – single mother (played by Janet Kaczmarek) and two children in their late teens. Jennifer Wagner (played by Reese Witherspoon) lives only to have as much fun and sex as possible, while her introvert brother David (played by Tobey Maguire) finds a better, kinder and gentler world in the form of "Pleasantville", 1950s television sitcom that shows the life of perfect American family in a perfect small town. One day David, who spends all his time watching "Pleasantville", gets mysterious remote control that would magically transport him and Jennifer on the other side of television screen. Two siblings have suddenly found themselves in the sitcom and took the roles of Bud and Mary Sue, two children of George (played by William H. Macy) and Betty Parker (played by Joan Allen). While George, thanks to being a "Pleasantville" buff, manages to play his role, his sister is horrified with the world which is not only literally black-and-white, but also deprived of many joys of modern life, including sex. She decides to imply the latter on local boys and, as a result, dull, predictable world of Pleasantville starts to change with some objects and people literally getting colour. Those changes frighten and infuriate many "normal" black-and-white citizens of Pleasantville. Those conservatives, led by Big Bob (played by J.T. Walsh), decide to protect the old order at any cost, including series of book burnings and other oppressive measures against "coloureds".
Pleasantville is wonderful film to look at. What was supposed to be rather simple and prosaic task - putting small objects in bright colours within black-and-white pictures - was solved with the revolutionary use of CGI technology. Because of large number of such details and large number of such scenes, Pleasantville briefly held the record for the highest number of single CGI effects per film. Ross succeeded in turning those seemingly prosaic images - which also had symbolic meaning within the context of film – into the real works of art. Music by Randy Newman was also very good and the film's soundtrack benefited from the combination of 1950s saccharine pop and Miles Davis' jazz. The acting in the film was also very good - Tobey Maguire was very convincing as introvert youth while Reese Witherspoon displayed her great comic talent. William H. Macy is also wonderful in her role, same as Joan Allen in another great role of emotionally suppressed housewife. Sadly, J.T. Walsh, here in one of his last on-screen appearances, didn't present anything more than standard role of menacing villain.
Good acting, impressive visuals and music aren't the only reasons why Pleasantville stands out among many 1990s Hollywood "high concept" comedies. Its author had a clear political agenda and used the film in order to push it. This agenda in many aspects corresponded with the dominating world view of Hollywood establishment during Clinton years - after the end of Cold War, the world was on the brink of new Golden Age of free market, globalisation, multiculturalism, all supported by the military might of the world's only and invulnerable superpower. According to Ross, the only threat to this utopia came form the within America itself – in the form of Republican Party and other conservatives that offered the alternative to 1990s realities. This alternative was romantic and idealised vision of America before the social and cultural turmoil of 1960s. Whole purpose of Pleasantville was to shatter the illusion of the gentler and kinder world that had existed before Vietnam and Watergate. For Ross this vision is best embodied in 1950s television sitcoms, each offering sterile, "family friendly" vision of utopia that once existed in American suburbs, exclusively populated by white middle class. Ross attacks this vision by showing that the facade of happy family life and "traditional values" covered ignorance, sexual frustrations and bigotry. Problems like broken homes and AIDS are small price to pay for the liberties gained in 1960s and cherished by American social liberals in Clinton years. The 1950s world was the exact opposite of Clinton's era and had to be radically changed at any cost, which is exactly what happens in the film.
It could be argued that Ross' view on 1950s is as one-sided as the view of the conservatives who praise the period as the Golden Age. Perception of historic realities based on 1950s network television is as misleading as perception of historic realities based on 1990s Hollywood films. Both 1950s sitcoms and 1990s Hollywood blockbusters reduced world's complexities to simple, "safe" and easily understandable "family friendly" concepts without challenging the notion of present day reality as the best possible world. Pleasantville isn't very different - in its take on 1950s, which is ironically black-and-white, everything that happened in 1960s is change for the better. Blue-collar workers become accomplished artists, repressed housewives become "whole persons" through masturbation and extramarital affairs and even the sex-crazed airhead miraculously transforms into intellectual. The brave new post-"Pleasantville" world is somehow being spared from the things like race riots, drugs, teen pregnancies and unemployment.
Gary Ross is, of course, entitled to his world view and he actually should be commended for expressing it with such honesty and clarity. But, in doing so, Ross failed to prevent politics from taking over the film at the expense of its entertainment value. This is exactly what happened with Pleasantville. The movie is best in the first half, when two 1990s protagonists explore 1950s world. The culture clash produces many funny and entertaining moments. In the second half, Ross loses his sense of humour and tries to compensate it with the socio-political allegory which is as subtle as elephant in the glass store. Good example for that could be found in "Pleasantville" conservatives being presented as Nazi-like monsters. This approach fails. Instead of embracing Ross' idea of change always being positive, many in the audience would actually start to sympathise with people of "Pleasantville" whose world is being destroyed by smug and patronising teenagers from the future. Ross also has some problems with the pacing, especially at the very end of the film, when the audience has to endure overlong and not very cathartic finale.
Pleasantville is a good and at times thought-provoking film. But, ironically, from today's perspective it is a vision as false as the one it tried to debunk. Today we live in a world which is much uglier and more dangerous than in 1998. Not all changes are changes for the better.
RATING: 5/10 (++)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.films.reviews on May 3rd 2004)
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Movie URL: https://www.themoviedb.org/movie/2657-pleasantville