Second Viewing: Pleasantville

I found the movie Pleasantville available on DVD at the local superstore for the bargain price of $5.45. My wife and I saw the movie when it first came out (1998). I remember I really liked it but I had forgotten most of the details. At this price, there was no reason not to add it to my DVD collection. I watched it for the second time last night.

Pleasantville is a mythical TV show that is somewhere between The Andy Griffith Show and Leave it to Beaver. Pleasantville imitates much of the sappy family sitcoms saturating the TV networks during the 1950s and 1960s. It is wholly inoffensive and saccharine to the point of gagging. Nonetheless, just as it is a mystery to me why anyone would waste their time watching reruns of dreck like Gilligan’s Island or The Brady Bunch, these shows resonate with many people. In the case of David (played by Tobey Maguire, best known for his role as Spiderman) he is drawn to the show because it models for him the mythical home life he wants to have. His reality is that his parents are divorced. His 40 year old mother is about to leave him and his slutty sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon, who is best known for her Legally Blonde movies) alone for the weekend. A Pleasantville TV marathon is just what David needs to tune out the reality around him.

A fight with his sister over the remote control ensues, causing it to be shattered. Mysteriously a TV repairman (played by Don Knotts, whose selection for the part was I am sure not coincidental) knocks on the door to service the TV. He provides a special “loaner” remote control, which mysteriously allows David and Jennifer to be transported into the monochrome world of Pleasantville. In Pleasantville it never rains, teenage infatuation never goes beyond holding hands and the local fire department’s only mission is rescuing cats out of trees.

Playing the Ward and June Cleaver roles are William H. Macy as George Parker and Joan Allen as Betty Parker. David and Jennifer assume the roles of their teenage children. While David aches to play his part, Jennifer has more difficulty making the transition. For a while, we get to revel in the innocent and surreal town of Pleasantville where the home team wins every basketball game and married couples always sleep in twin beds. Another town fixture is the diner where the local teens mix. It is at the diner where Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels), ably assisted by David, provide cheeseburgers and Cherry Cokes for Pleasantville teens. Pleasantville seems to be a happier version of The Village. The all roads lead back to Pleasantville.

Jennifer becomes Pleasantville’s change agent. She shows the local boys that they can do more than hold hands at Lover’s Lane. Soon many of the mobile teenagers are discovering they have hormones. Very gradually, the world of Pleasantville turns from shades of grey into dabs of color.

Consequently, Pleasantville is really another metaphor movie. Pleasantville is a utopian town full of rigorously mainstream values where all children respect their parents, nothing really bad ever happens and everything is ordered, as it should be. The town is also as white as a loaf of Wonder Bread. In other words, it is an American socially conservative nirvana. Jennifer starts a very gradually transformation of the people of Pleasantville. One by one, they morph from caricatures into real people. The transformation is easy to spot when citizens show up with colors on their faces.

Naturally, at some point the mayor wakes up to the threat to his town. The monochrome citizens of Pleasantville have to figure out how to deal with the situation. Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson finds that he gets no satisfaction from flipping burgers anymore. He begins to paint. After Jennifer discusses the facts of life to her mother, Betty Parker learns the joy of masturbation and she too begins to change.

While Pleasantville is full of fine actors, a second viewing made me remember why I liked it so much. Pleasantville is worth watching simply to enjoy Joan Allen in the part of Betty Parker. In this role, she demonstrates that she is an exceptional actress. I found it quite exhilarating to watch her character morph from caricature into human being. Her role alone would be reason to see the movie, but William H. Macy’s part as David’s TV father is also deftly done.

It is not a perfect movie. I have never been the biggest Tobey Maguire fan, but he plays his part competently. Reese Witherspoon is dead on as a slutty Valley Girl teen. Yet she too matures in the movie, going from a shallow woman into good-looking guys into a woman who appreciates literature. This is an easy movie to get wrong but Director Gary Ross almost always gets it just right.

The result is a satisfying movie full of little surprises. You expect the movie to dwell on nostalgic themes. Instead, it helps us understand why people have flaws and many dimensions. While not quite in the league of some of my top favorite movies for progressives, it remains on the ring just below the top. It is satisfying in a weird sort of way that no 50s sitcom could possibly be.

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