Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 31, 2011)
Though the success of DVD sales changed this somewhat, I think repeated viewings of the various films remain something of a rarity among the general population. That’s a shame, because it's amazing how a viewer’s 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. For instance, when I first watched 1998’s City of Angels, I viewed it as sappy schmaltz, but I appreciated it much more on second go-round.
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. However, Pleasantville did Future 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 Future, 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 subsequent 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 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.
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 can't help but feel that Pleasantville offers 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 don’t 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. (Though I’m glad I didn’t say this to Kevin Durant – he attended the middle school at which I used to work!) 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, such as when 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. That’s ridiculous, as 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. However, 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.