Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Platinum Series DVD
New Line, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC] & Dolby Surround, subtitles: English, single side-dual layer, 37 chapters, rated R, 124 min., $24.98, street date 3/23/99.
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Original Dramatic Score-Randy Newman, Best Costume Design-Judianna Makovsky, Best Art Direction-Jay Hart, Jeannine Claudia Oppewall, 1999.
Directed by Gary Ross. Starring Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, J.T. Walsh, Don Knotts, Marley Shelton, Jane Kaczmarek.
In Pleasantville, USA, there has never been any rain.
There has never been hatred, aggression or tears.
In Pleasantville, USA, there has never been a passionate kiss.
There has never been a flat tire, a red rose or a work of art.
David Wagner (Tobey Maguire) is a Nineties kid with a Fifties addiction. He's hooked on reruns of a classic television show called Pleasantville, set in a simple place where everyone is swell and perky, "confrontation" is a dirty word and life is pleasingly pleasant.
Addicted to this utopian world, David immerses himself in Pleasantville as an innocent escape from the trouble-plagued real world that he must share with his ultra-hip, totally popular twin sister, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon). But one evening, life takes a bizarre twist when a peculiar repairman (Don Knotts) gives him a strange remote control, which zaps David and his sister straight into Pleasantville.
Trapped in a radically different dimension of sight and sound, David and Jennifer find themselves cast as members of the TV family, the Parkers. David has become "Bud" and Jennifer has been transformed into "Mary Sue," and they are surrounded by the black and white suburbia that once kept David glued to the tube for hours.
It doesn't take long to discover that there's no news, weather or sports when you're living in a black and white paradise where everything is always...pleasant. Books have no words, the high school basketball team always wins, and nobody ever questions why things are always so perfect. Initially, David revels in the prozac-like haze that has gripped Pleasantville. But when Jennifer brings her Nineties-like attitude into this unsuspecting era of blandness, things start to happen in living color.
All the repressed desires of life in the Fifties begin to boil up through the people of Pleasantville, changing their lives in strange and wonderful ways that none of them had even dared to dream of, until they were visited by two kids from the real world.
Many people don't see the point in watching movies more than once. I assume you aren't part of that contingent - while DVD rentals are easily available in most areas, it's still mainly an owner's medium - but sometimes we "videophiles" forget that we aren't typical. Bring up aspect ratios and anamorphic transfers around the water cooler someday and you'll discover the truth!
Anyway, my initial point was to establish that repeated viewings of the same film tends to be something of a rarity among the general population. I think that's something of a shame, because it's amazing how wildly different opinions of a film can change from screening to screening.
I'm not talking about the inevitable occurrence whereby you watch a childhood favorite many years later and discover it stinks. No, I'm discussing movies for which both viewings don't come that far apart - a matter of months to a year or so - but you see something different the second time that alters your viewpoint. If you've read my review of City of Angels, you'll know what I mean; my opinion of that film made a radically positive upswing when I watched it again.
Then there's Pleasantville. I saw this film during its theatrical run in the fall of 1998 and I thought it was pretty decent. It certainly didn't bowl me over, but it offered some mildly amusing variations on the "fish out of water" theme as David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) navigated the frighteningly antiseptic landscape of a 1950s sitcom. Yes, it essentially worked like an update on Back to the Future as it derived humor from the anachronisms of that era, but Pleasantville did BTTF one better: since David and Jennifer were stuck inside a TV show, the filmmakers could make the setting overwhelmingly "pleasant" since it didn't have to reproduce real-life.
Rather than simply create a pure entertainment such as BTTF, however, the producers of Pleasantville used the stale environment of the town to inject some social commentary into the story. Essentially, the presence of the two modern-day teenagers starts to upset the regular way of doing things in Pleasantville as new concepts become introduced into their environment. This starts the mechanisms for social change into motion, which are opposed by a large faction of citizens who just want things to stay "pleasant." Largely this battle is composed upon generational lines and very closely resembles the emergence of the youth culture as a political force in the 1960s. When I first watched Pleasantville, I thought all these aspects added some resonance to the film and made clever reference to the past to communicate its points about bigotry and fear.
However, upon second review, I decided that I'm a bonehead. I now view Pleasantville as a rather heavy-handed and strident attempt to deify the 1960s. The point seems clear: kids are gonna lead the way and you square old-timers better just watch out!
Okay, maybe it's not quite as simplistic as that, but it's close. Really, Pleasantville really strongly comes across as an arty version of Footloose, in which kids fight the oppression of their slightly-fascistic elders.
Of course, "slightly" isn't the case here. Many of the conceits are so black and white (no pun intended) that I'm rather disgusted with myself for not seeing through them the first time. I guess I just watched Pleasantville for entertainment that time and while I observed the points being made, I couldn't pick up on just how bluntly this occurred. This movie's about as subtle as a sledgehammer.
As usual, older white males are the nominal villains here, since they have the most to lose by the alteration in the social order, and it's teenagers who lead the way with their cultural revolution. During his audio commentary, director Gary Ross comments that he sees the movie as a depiction of the nature of change and of our reactions to it. Yeah, that point can be taken, but the movie draws so many direct historical parallels that I find it impossible to interpret the picture as much other than a slightly abstracted view of the changes that took place during the 1960s.
Oh, man - that audio commentary! If you've read many of my reviews, you'll know that I absolutely adore audio commentaries. This one, however, completely rubbed me the wrong way. No, it didn't contribute to my change of heart about the film - I'd altered my view before I listened to it - but it certainly solidified my feelings. A more pretentious and grandiloquent track would be nearly unimaginable. Metaphor for this, allegory for that - gimme a break! Pleasantville is an entertaining fable that simply strove for more than it's simple little head could deliver, and it suffers for that shortcoming.
Ross clearly thinks quite highly of himself - we get to hear about how he was something of a writing prodigy - and his condescension comes through frequently during Pleasantville. For a film that allegedly encourages free thought, it sure does seem to go out of its way to tell us what to think and feel. Battle lines are clearly drawn and the movie offers virtually no room to interpret good guys or bad guys other than the way it wants: kids (and other "free-thinkers") good, adults (and other "non-changeists") bad. At almost no point is the point of view of those who are opposed to the rapid alterations in Pleasantville offered any sympathy or recognition of validity; there's a train coming, man, so you better step off the tracks!
I couldn't help but feel that Pleasantville is yet another movie that thinks the 1960s got it right and that if we all could just act like they did back then, things would be great. That's an odd viewpoint for a film that allegedly encourages change and rejects the notion of a "perfect" society like Pleasantville, but it's the impression I took from the movie. I think that's because all the upheaval is so clearly regarded as positive. Negative ramifications don't emerge because of issues related to the changes themselves; they happen simply because of the knee-jerk rigidity of unenlightened citizens.
In addition to Footloose, one other image came to mind while I watched Pleasantville: an episode of The Simpsons that mocked modern-day psychology. A personal improvement speaker comes to Springfield and identifies Bart's "I do what I feel like" philosophy as representing an ideal for all citizens. Of course, once everyone only does whatever they want to do, society starts to crumble as chaos ensues.
Pleasantville doesn't seem to get that we all can't do whatever we "feel like" whenever we want because without limits and structure, all that's left is anarchy. At one point in the film, we hear mention of a teenage boy who walked off his job at the grocery store because he was sick of it. Maybe I misinterpreted this moment, but I had the feeling we were supposed to think positively of that move: "Right on! Stick it to the man!" However, I refuse to see a lack of personal responsibility as a good thing.
Similarly, the theme of "follow your heart" imbues Pleasantville. That's no big deal; tons of kiddie movies tell youngsters that they should pursue their dreams and not let anyone dissuade them. That's all well and good; everyone should be allowed to attempt to live up to their own hopes.
However, this message almost always lacks any sense of realism. I work with kids for a living and I know how hard it can be to tell them that they probably won't play in the NBA someday; you don't want to shoot down their dreams, but you want to let them know that they better keep other, more readily attainable goals in mind as well. Movies usually fail to point out the downside, that so few can reach the heights they seek, so kids (and adults, too) continue to believe that the high life is right around the corner.
Pleasantville actually portrays some fairly realistic end goals for its characters; Jennifer goes from teen slut to college-bound study-hound. Even then, however, it takes the easy way out: Jennifer decides to retain her Pleasantville life as Mary Sue since, as she says, she'd never be able to get into a college back in her real life. Bullshit; anyone can get into college if they've graduated high school. As such, Jennifer takes the easy way out; she goes to college in the fictional universe rather than work hard in the real world to go from a community college to a decent school.
And never mind all of the bizarre ramifications of this decision. Will she remain in the Pleasantville world for the rest of her life? If not, how far will she get with a diploma from a fictional university? While she now has the desire to learn, how will she overcome the inevitable gaps in her education caused by years of neglect? Eep!
My father didn't like Pleasantville the first time he saw it, largely because of the radical lack of internal consistency in the film. He picked on the nature of the color changes. Characters go from black and white to color for a myriad of reasons, but which one will affect which person is anyone's guess. Yeah, that haphazardness can irritate, just as all the lack of logic I mentioned about becomes more and more problematic the more and more you think about it, but in the end, Pleasantville IS a fable, so we probably should allow the filmmakers to skate on most of these issues.
That I can do, but I can't ignore the hamhanded imagery, emotional manipulation, and blatant hypocrisy of Pleasantville. As such, I clearly no longer think much of the film. That said, it does possess some positive attributes. Technically, it accomplishes its goals extremely well. The black and white and color images blend pretty much seamlessly. While Ross indicates that camera techniques alien to 1950s TV production were used, the black and white scenes nonetheless largely convey that sense well through lighting and other production aspects. Also, Ross cleverly shoots the scenes of social unrest in such a way that they clearly evoke historical footage of real events.
Pleasantville boasts a top notch cast, but to be frank, none of them really did much for me. Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels and William H. Macy are typically excellent as they convey the "traditional" and slowly growing sides of their characters, but the material keeps all of them from making any true breakthroughs in their roles. Both Witherspoon and Maguire are pretty good as the leads, though Maguire seems to have trouble conveying any emotion other than mild contentment. In the end, the cast can't save Pleasantville, but they clearly make it much more palatable than it otherwise could have been.
Though it doesn't quite live up the level set by products such as Blade or Lost in Space, Pleasantville marks another solid DVD effort from New Line. First of all, picture quality appears remarkable clean and consistently solid throughout the film, and when the're used, colors look very realistic and vibrant. This has to have been a difficult effort because of all the effects work in the movie, but it looks great at virtually all times. Granted, Pleasantville could get away with some flaws, since some degradation of image makes sense in the black and white scenes; razor sharp quality would have seemed strange at those points. Whatever the case may be, this picture simply looks RIGHT from beginning to end.
While it's fairly subdued, the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix works well to support the picture. Dialogue and music always appear natural and very clean. The surround channels don't get much of a workout, but they're used to good effect throughout the movie. It ain't demo material, but it does what it needs to do.
Considering this is a New Line effort, I found the supplemental materials to be something of a disappointment. Yeah, there's a nice complement of information here, but this is NEW LINE, for God's sake, a company from whom we've come to expect the proverbial kitchen sink!
Still, there are some interesting bits here. I've already mentioned the audio commentary from Ross; I didn't care for it because of his rampaging pretensions, but nonetheless he does a good job of discussing the film. Also, Randy Newman contributes a commentary on the track that features his isolated score. This is something New Line has begun to do a lot, and I wish other studios would do as well. Newman's commentary is more localized than Ross's, but it's also more interesting as he speaks frankly and wittily about his work. Newman also possesses a refreshing LACK of pretension; he even mocks himself when he starts to head in that direction.
The main highlight of the rest of the supplements is a 32 minute feature called The Art of Pleasantville. This piece focuses on - surprise! - the technical and artistic aspects of the production as it details things such as the storyboards and the digital effects. It's okay but not frightfully interesting; I would have preferred a more all-inclusive behind the scenes program. This section also includes a gallery of storyboards.
In addition, the Pleasantville DVD includes a mildly interesting Fiona Apple video (directed by Boogie Nights mastermind P.T. Anderson - how about that New Line nepotism!), the theatrical trailer, and typical (but well done) cast and crew biographies. Some images from the film are also displayed in a section that's supposed to help you adjust the color settings on your TV; Video Essentials, it ain't, and most annoyingly, it's placed right at the start of the movie, so every time you watch it, you have to skip over this part. It's a nice concept but it's poorly implemented.
In another increasingly-typical New Line touch, Pleasantville also includes some DVD-ROM features. I don't have a DVD-ROM drive, so I can't comment on their quality, but these pieces seem less interesting and exciting than those found on DVDs such as Rush Hour or Lost In Space. Still, it's nice to see New Line attempt to utilize that medium.
At this point, I'm supposed to make some kind of recommendation either way, but I'm having a hard time doing so in this case. Clearly, my current feelings toward the film are rather negative, but they contrast with my initial enjoyment of a few months ago. So who do you listen to and which way should you go? If you're absolutely convinced the movie's for you, go for it; New Line's DVD presents it well. If you're less certain, give it a rental first and see what you think.