Once in a blue moon you will watch a film with absolutely no expectations - you may not have seen a trailer or only vaguely recall seeing one, and maybe you haven't heard anybody talk about it at all in fact - and this film will quietly surprise you. Not "knock you on your ass" surprise you like The Matrix did to me, but quietly surprise you. You may not be sitting on the edge of your seat or getting up and shouting for joy, but the movie will grab you and you will watch it, hanging on every word, with rapt attention, maybe the mouth agape, and you will realize that, when the credits start rolling, you have just witnessed a true rarity: a movie you have absolutely no complaints about. An extremely "pleasant" film, you might say.
I personally had this experience with the movie Pleasantville, a film that unlikely finds itself not only in my Top 10 of favorite movies, but #3 on the list. It is that good. The funny thing is, I didn't watch the film until probably two or three years after it was released. I'd never seen a theatrical trailer for it and the only advertisement for it I'd seen was a poster at a student center my senior year at the University and I had barely even paid much attention to that. Years later I caught it one night while flipping through the movie channel block on my satellite stations and that is where my television stayed until it was over. I didn't even catch the first five minutes.
In fact, I never saw those first five minutes until a few days ago.
One of my qualifications for a movie to be in my Top 10 is that whenever I see the movie on, doesn't matter what channel or network, cut or uncut, I sit down and watch it. Pleasantville meets this qualification. But now I do not have to wait, as this past weekend while shopping at Wal-Mart I found the DVD in the bargain bin for only five bucks, a steal since the price is far less what the movie is worth. It wasn't until I popped the DVD in that night that I finally watched the movie from beginning to end. But it had been #3 on my list long before that.
Minor spoilers below, but it's not like there's any big surprises to give away, but be forewarned anyway.
Judging purely by the concept, you would not think this film would be in anybody's Top 10, much less yours: a brother and sister in the late 1990s - twins who couldn't be more unalike, geeky guy and popular girl - are fighting over a magical remote control and get sucked into a Leave it to Beaver-type 1950's sitcom, a show the brother (David - Tobey Maguire) loved and the sister (Jennifer - Reese Witherspoon) could not have cared less about. They are sentenced to live in this white bread, poodle skirt, wholesome universe as penance for Jennifer's slutty ways and the brother's obsession with the show, a Be Careful What You Wish for situation that had David settling down to watch a weekend marathon of the show, which conflicted with his sister's plan to watch an MTV concert with a guy she'd been courting.
Don Knotts, as the "TV Repairman," is the mastermind of this scheme, who deviously had given them the magical remote control after finding out just how good David's trivia skills were with the sitcom, which indeed was entitled "Pleasantville." Once sucked in, Jennifer and David assumed the identities of two of the show's central characters, Bud and Mary Sue Parker, who coincidentally were also twin brother and sister.
The film is quite a comedy at first, as you would expect. Jennifer's reaction to the situation, one of disgust at missing her date and the abject nerdiness of the universe, conflicts with David's wonderment of it all, which provided for plenty of genuine laughs in the beginning. She has to eat a breakfast, prepared by their temporary mother, Betty Parker (Joan Allen), filled with pancakes, sausage and bacon, while David knows all of the characters' names and even what their occupations are, which assists them in their assimilation.
David's plan is, while waiting for the Repairman to return them home, to just play along and follow rules of the Pleasantville universe which includes the high school basketball team that never loses, constant perfect weather (72 degrees, sunny), soda shops, stay-at-home moms, fathers that yell "Hi Honey, I'm Home!" when they return from work, and a Main Street that at its end begins again. Notable things the universe doesn't include are technicolor, swearing, any slang but the word "swell," violence, minorities, and even toilets.
Oh, and no sex... or anything thing related to the act.
However, after seeing one of their school's most popular guys, Skip Martin (Paul Walker), scheming Jennifer has different plans.
Simply put, the plan is sex, and sex with Skip, including a trip to Lovers Lane - where the town's teenagers had only used to hold hands before Jennifer came along - and the memorable line "I'll let you pin me, Skip... or maybe I'll pin you." The side effect of this carhop, besides Skip being mortified by his own hormones, is a rose in a rosebush that turns to real red.1
This is where the film becomes less a comedy and more of a clever, beautiful, but subtle, commentary on humanity, sexuality, racism, and last but not least, society in general: the desire for a utopian one, and the necessity of a dystopian one. As the citizens of Pleasantville, much to David's horror, become less than perfect after learning about sex, amongst other things from Real Life (the basketball team actually loses a game), more and more things and people start turning color. And this process of turning color is clearly a metaphor for the loss of innocence as well as racism. And the reaction to the coloring and other changes in the town is a sort of fascism. As Roger Ebert expertly pointed out in his review, "The movie is like the defeat of the body snatchers: The people in color are like former pod people now freed to move on into the future. We observe that nothing creates fascists like the threat of freedom." Indeed, as this new infestation of technicolor sweep through the town it creates fear and near-panic; storefront signs that read "No Coloreds Allowed" emerge, one of the few times the film is not so subtle in its message.2
The chuckles, by and large, stop toward the end of the film and its brain food quality begins, as regular town hall meetings become public displays of the emerging fascism of Pleasantville's Chamber of Commerce, which Bud and Sue's father - George (brilliant performance by William H. Macy) - gets inducted into. This is after his wife, Betty, stops being at home making sure his dinner is cooked, in a touching subplot where she falls for the soda shop owner and Bud's, I mean David's, employer, Bill (Jeff Daniels). The Hitler of this town is the head of the Chamber and Mayor, "Big Bob," played by J.T. Walsh in his final performance.
One of the most interesting asides about the color-turning and the film in general is how frustratingly long it takes for both David and Jennifer to turn color along with most of the rest of the characters. The other kids (and Betty) having sex are turning colors, why not Jennifer, who has had the most sex out of all of them? And why does David languish in black and white, even after helping fill in the library's blank books by telling the other teenagers about the wonderful works of literature that they're missing out on? Well, their change to color had different criteria. The Pleasantville universe affecting them, the same way they were radically affecting it, is what would do the trick for them near the end of the movie. And if you haven't seen the movie yet I'll just let you see for yourself what that exactly means.
Actually, what it takes to turn each of the movie's main characters color is interesting: George (realizing he loves his wife not just for her cooking and cleaning), Bill (finally realizing his dream, with the help of David/Bud, of becoming a fine artist), and especially the Mayor (um, again, I'll let you see that one for yourself).
As for the color changing itself, most people probably do not realize what a technical achievement it was; the special features on the DVD talk about it at length, but because in the film it is so expertly and seamlessly done, also quite innovative for its time, it is not appreciated as much as it should be. But this is always the downfall of special effects that are done too well, like just about anything else in Pleasantville, start to finish.
In the end, after a tumultuous transitional period involving vandalism, book burnings, and brief but surprisingly nasty displays of racism toward the "coloreds," the town relents and lets David and Jennifer transform it completely, while they themselves are transformed by it. Jennifer even decides to stay "for a while" so that she may attend college, while David lets Don Knotts return him home, where he has a touching scene with his real mother, played all too briefly by Jane Kaczmarek, who utters the only major profanity in the entire film.
Everything about this movie, even down to Kaczmarek's aforementioned small but memorable role as David and Jennifer's single and frustrated mother, fit together to become what I consider a perfect film. That's right, I said perfect. As many times as I've seen it, I cannot find a single thing wrong with it. Everything, from the casting, the acting, the writing, the directing, the effects, the comedy, the drama, the social commentaries that are deep but subtle and not preachy, and even the score, all of it could not have been done better. I have a feeling of satisfaction after viewing Pleasantville that I rarely experience after watching a movie. It is like the "little film that could": no ball-busting special effects, not much media buzz, no heavy promotions, no wildly popular actors (well, Reese Witherspoon and Tobey Maguire became wildly popular later)... it was just an excellent, wonderful achievement of cinema.
And, like I said, just perfect.
In case you were wondering, my #1 films are, tied for the spot, The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and my #2 is Terminator 2: Judgment Day... which... I guess would make my Top 10 list a Top 11... oh well. So at #3, Pleasantville is an odd follow-up, no?
Released: October 23, 1998
Written, Directed, and Produced by: Gary Ross
Cast: Tobey Maguire
(David), Reese Witherspoon
(Jennifer), William H. Macy
(George Parker), Joan Allen
, (Betty Parker), Jeff Daniels
(Bill Johnson), J.T. Walsh
(Big Bob/Mayor), Don Knotts
(TV Repairman), Marley Shelton
(Margaret Henderson), Paul Walker
(Skip Martin), Jane Kaczmarek
(David/Jennifer's mother), Marc Blucas
(basketball hero), Danny Strong
By the way, if you rent/purchase the DVD, check out the music video of Fiona Apple's cover of "Across the Universe" (the song at the end of the movie). It features the destruction of Bill's soda shop, 'tis a really good video and version of the classic song.
1 Even though I disagree (it's debatable, methinks) this opinion is worth noting:
Orange Julius says It's also important to point out that sex isn't what causes the first of the changes - it's Bud suggesting that maybe Skip shouldn't ask Mary Sue out.
2 Orange Julius says How about the girl picking the apple off the tree?