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.