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Movie Review: Pleasantville

By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

Written and directed by Gary Ross

With Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, Jeff Daniels, J.T. Walsh, Don Knotts, Marley Shelton

Sitcom is an art form. And now that I've lost all my readers and my last ounce of critical credibility (if such existed to begin with), I can continue unimpeded. Not only is it an art form, it's underused. Yes, with the overwhelming glut of sitcoms on the tube - and they truly represent a self-contained universe of genre, form, and style conventions - almost no one has yet bothered to push the boundaries (I'm taking into account only American TV here; what is being done with TV sitcoms in, say, Japan, is a topic for another time). When such deconstructing attempts are made, the results are usually startling; if you remember one of the earlier sequences in Natural Born Killers, the one that Oliver Stone directed as a sitcom fragment, you might recall the genuine shock that resulted from the superposition of a cheery pastel ambiance and violent menace.

Pleasantville is a prime example of how much mileage can one get by using the stagnant form of sitcom, if it's used with wit, inventiveness, a fresh eye, and a healthy disregard for stereotypes.

The story concerns two teenage siblings (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) who miraculously find themselves stuck in a 1950s black-and-white sitcom: White picket fences, doting mom (Joan Allen), father who knows best (William H. Macy), a soda shop on the corner, waffles, bacon, and steak tips for breakfast, a fire team who is there only to rescue cats from the trees, etc. And that's all you're going to hear from me about the plot; the theatrical trailer spoils a lot of it anyway (and I do earnestly recommend closing your eyes if by any chance you happen upon it). The above scenario obviously gives a prime opportunity for a mildly-amusing "fish out of water" comedy (see those nineties teens grapple with fifties fashion and custom), and Pleasantville spends a few minutes operating in this mode. But then, pulling a concealed card out of a sleeve, it starts making plot twists and turns, each wilder than the previous, and yet totally convincing.

Screenwriter Gary Ross made quite a name for himself in the Hollywood high-concept comedy industry: He wrote both Big and Dave, which were not only consistently amusing, but also managed to have a complex story, impressively detailed characters, and a layer of subtext. This film is not only written by Ross; it's also his directorial debut, and shows him to be highly adept not only with words, but also with images. Pleasantville has amazing visuals, perhaps the second-best this year (the best one, unfortunately, belong to the sickeningly saccharin What Dreams May Come). When flawlessly emulating a sitcom world (to such a consistently high degree that this emulation feels sarcastically subversive), as well as when deconstructing it, Ross takes this very intentionally cliched world and gives it his absolutely unique vision.

He's helped by one of the most interesting ensemble casts in recent memory. Maguire essays his socially-challenged teenager without ever resorting to cliches or winking to the audience; both William H. Macy and Jeff Daniels are excellent as the two characters who change the most; but it's the other two actors who end up stealing every singe scene. Joan Allen plays her fifth neglected wife in a row (first four were The Crucible, Nixon, Face/Off, and The Ice Storm), and by now it would seem she mined the part of all it's worth. But here she is again as fresh and emotionally honest as if it were her first role. Finally, the late J.T. Walsh is nothing short of amazing as Big Bob, the mayor of Pleasantville, whose character starts on the side, but by the end firmly occupies the very heart of the movie - a heart of darkness, as it were.

There's more remarkable stuff in this film, ranging from Randy Newman's score to carefully selected period songs to excellent production design. Pleasantville also manages to use tons of digital visual effects (as a matter of fact, the most digital effects ever in the history of movies - at least, until George Lucas releases Star Wars I in May). These effects, by the way, aren't used simply as a visual candy - they are strictly in the service of the story.

And that story is remarkable. Pleasantville is always funny and appealing; it is very light on its feet, turning the monochromatic sitcom world around and around and discovering different facets to it; it seamlessly switches the mood from nostalgia to romance to satire to, ultimately, feral menace, and examination of some breathtakingly deep issues. There are enough hints in the first hour of the film to guess the climax, but it's still exciting to see a film to pursue it's main idea unswervingly, however far it might lead from its initially sunny and conflict-free world.

The greatest surprise is that Pleasantville manages to do all that while remaining nothing but a highly stylized comedy. In other words, it's a sitcom, possessing both grace and depth and a rushing stream of ideas, rapidly percolating under the surface.