The 1950s were a complicated time. In popular culture, we view the decade as an era of purity and innocence. But things were changing. Music was getting edgier, movies were losing their sweetness, and teenagers were getting more and more sexually active. To counter this falling away were inoffensive shows like Leave It to Beaver or The Danny Thomas Show, which depicted wholesome family values and a worry-free existence.
1998’s Pleasantville focuses on a high school introvert, David (Tobey Maguire), who is obsessed with an old ’50s sitcom called Pleasantville. He knows every episode like the back of his hand and he dreams of living in a world like that in order to escape the realities of his own broken home. On the flip side is his twin sister, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), who’s popular and snotty and tells everyone she’s not related to David.
One evening, while anticipating an all-night marathon of the show, David gets into a fight with Jennifer over the remote, shattering it to pieces. A mysterious television repairman (Don Knotts) shows up uninvited and gives them a magical remote that will make it feel like they’re “in the show.” Obviously, David and Jennifer do end up inside Pleasantville, but everything is in black-and-white and a little too perfect for Jennifer’s taste. She decides to show the townspeople how to “have a good time.” All hell breaks loose.
From the minute the pairing gets launched into the TV set, I have a small list of questions that end up never being answered: Why does Don Knotts want to send David to Pleasantville? Why does he let Jennifer go with him if he only sent David because of how “worthy” he is? Why doesn’t David want to be in Pleasantville when he sees the show as a utopian escape from his own life? And why does David teach the rote Bill (Jeff Daniels) how to break away from his routine right after scolding his sister from messing with “the reality of things”?
The first half of the movie is completely enjoyable, with hysterical fish-out-of-water scenarios and subtle satire of the Cleaveresque world of Pleasantville. I was laughing consistently, but then with 45 minutes left, the narrative takes a left turn and gets very serious. It’s jarring and honestly, not welcomed. I was enjoying the fun, what-if concept and wanted to see how it played out, perhaps, in a more granular sense. Instead, we go in a direction that proves that the filmmaker may be in a little over his head.
Writer-director Gary Ross doesn’t ever argue his points, but just throws a bunch of ideas and scenarios at the audience as an attempt to manipulate us to agree with him by exploiting our emotions. We’re supposed to feel a disdain for certain characters but are also never really given a good enough reason to—like David’s sitcom dad, George, played by William H. Macy.
The liberal angle is never executed in a way that would stifle the other side. In fact, it helps prove the conservative point even better. The movie depicts the unraveling of society’s moral structure due to the ripple effect caused by one sinful act—a gateway drug, so to speak. I mean, it’s Biblical. Once the people of Pleasantville eat from the Tree of Knowledge, it causes them to discover immorality in other ways as well. In the Christian world, these are called “sins.” Some of the citizens soon go down a road of pain and suffering. George’s wife leaves him unexpectedly and the townspeople have now become divided when they were previously depicted as peaceful. But hey, at least David gets to realize his talent for painting and Jennifer gets to go to college!
We’re never shown the negative aspects of the utopia that would need to be there to justify subverting it. Before David and Jennifer arrive, the people of Pleasantville are content with their VERY routine lives, but we’re never shown a reason why they would desire to break away from that. Prior to Jennifer’s influence, we’re never shown any pain or resentment by the townspeople for the life they live. Everyone seems perfectly happy—and for all intents and purposes, they are. Perhaps it would have been more effective if there were characters who were secretly sad and struggling with a hidden complacency with their idyllic surroundings. Literally nobody has a motive that propels them. Jennifer sparks chaos for chaos’ sake, and also because she’s from a different world and life that she’s actually unhappy with.
The two leads are hardly realized either. They barely seem to have any pressing personal goals or reasons why they need to be in Pleasantville. Their drive feels forgotten about or lost. They were the unhappy ones, coming into a world filled with joy and innocence and projecting their own bitterness on a town and changing it forever. Otherwise, their home life in the “real world” seems totally disconnected from the goings on of the TV world. Jennifer and David don’t really serve any purpose other than to corrupt the people of Pleasantville.
There’s not really an antagonist until about 30 minutes left. Perhaps a peaceful, structured society is the antagonist? The mayor, Big Bob (J.T. Walsh) assumes the role eventually, aggressively creating all these rules to stop the chaos around town. I mean, if you had never experienced conflict of any kind for decades and decades, how would you handle a sudden breakdown of society? Whether right or wrong, you’d likely panic. And likely do so irrationally. We’re never given the chance to sympathize with Big Bob and the movie finishes with us at odds with his character.
The world takes place in a TV show, after all, and there’s really no reason for any of them to be resentful. Heck, they don’t even have to ever go to the bathroom (however, they still eat and are capable of having sex). The reality in the universe is never definitive when that should very well be the angle of the film. Instead, details come and go based on convenience for Ross’ goal.
There’s great attention to detail by the set designers and the cinematographer. Every inch of the screen is thought through with intent and care. It’s just too bad the plot doesn’t get that same treatment.
As high concept as this film is, the themes are never quite realized. One minute we’re talking about racism, the next, sexual liberation, and then feminism, with each conveyed through relatively superficial metaphors. The ideas all get jumbled together and we’re left with an unclear message and, more importantly, no solution.
Pleasantville is a movie that thinks it’s really smart, but really isn’t quite sure what it’s doing half the time. The themes are all over the place and the messages are muddled. Often confused by its own realities, the film doesn’t quite accomplish what it thinks it does.