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Life in 'Pleasantville is wonderful on the sirface. Look closer.

By Joe Leydon

OCTOBER 26, 1998:  The temperature is always 72 degrees. Bathrooms have no toilets. Married couples sleep in twin beds. Firemen exist only to retrieve cats from trees. And sex simply doesn't exist.

Welcome to the impossibly innocent world of Pleasantville, the kind of place that could exist only in a '50s tv sitcom. Or in one of this year's very best films. Ingeniously conceived and impressively executed, Pleasantville is a provocatively complex and surprisingly anti-nostalgic parable wrapped in the beguiling guise of a commercial high-concept comedy.

The movie imagines a 40-year-old tv series - think Father Knows Best, only more so - that has developed a cult following on a '90s cable-tv network. David (Tobey Maguire), a contemporary suburban teenager, is an obsessed devotee of Pleasantville, largely because the squeaky-clean show presents such an inviting view of nuclear family life in a cheery small town. For a shy kid living in a broken home with his divorced mom (Jane Kaczmarek) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), his often hostile sister, Pleasantville represents the best of all possible worlds. Unfortunately, David soon discovers that, while it's a great place to visit, he wouldn't want to live there.

Thanks to the intercession of a vaguely sinister TV repairman (a cleverly cast Don Knotts), David and Jennifer are magically transported into the black-and-white tv comedy. Once there, they assume the identities of Bud and Mary Sue, the model teen children of paradigmatic '50s sitcom parents: George (William H. Macy), an indefatigably chipper businessman whose business is never explained, and Betty (Joan Allen), an impeccably dressed housewife who makes Donna Reed look positively grungy.

Since David is well-versed in Pleasantville trivia, he finds it relatively easy to assume his new role. More important, he's pleased, not perplexed. Not surprisingly, Jennifer is far more discontent - at least, until she meets Skip (Paul Walker), a hunky high-school senior who's eager to go steady with Mary Sue. When they drive to the local lovers lane for some innocent hand-holding, Jennifer takes control of the situation and relieves Skip of his virginity. And with that, a bold new life force is introduced to Pleasantville.

One thing leads to another, and then to something else, as writer-director Gary Ross gradually subverts the hermetically-sealed fantasyland of a '50s sitcom with impolite urges and inconvenient passions. But while introducing the joys of real-world passions, David and Jennifer inadvertently unleash much darker forces: intolerance, paranoia, even mob violence.

To a certain degree, Ross is belaboring an obvious point: Those fondly-remembered sitcoms of yesteryear really were self-justifying advertisements for a paternalistic society that valued conformity above all else. As amusing as they might seem to nostalgic contemporary viewers, the shows were informed by a conservative '50s mindset based on rigid rules regarding family values and role models.

The most intriguing thing about Pleasantville is, Ross wants to have it both ways, and largely succeeds. At its worst, the comedy indicates, Pleasantville is a place where the locals skirt perilously close to fascism when their way of life is threatened. But is that way of life so bad after all? The longer Jennifer stays in the scrupulously wholesome Pleasantville, the more she grows as an individual - she even starts to read books and the less she feels the need to play the role of a hip and promiscuous '90s teen. In the end, it's Jennifer, not David, who wants to remain in this old-fashioned parallel universe.

By insisting on ambiguity, Ross occasionally clouds the issues that he intelligently and humorously raises. The final third of the movie is unduly protracted, suggesting that the writer-director wanted to cover all his bases while grappling with the need to provide a dramatically and emotionally satisfying conclusion. Tighter and more focused storytelling might have helped, though Ross is to be commended for refusing to take the easy way out.

In a uniformly excellent ensemble cast, William H. Macy (Fargo) is a standout with a performance that balances straight-arrow caricature with unexpectedly affecting poignance. Joan Allen is equally effective in her subtle transformation from docile Stepford Wife to yearning free spirit, while Jeff Daniels - as a malt-shop owner who blossoms into an artist - conveys the wistful trepidation of a man who's anxiously confused about his new-found happiness. Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon are extremely adept at playing strangers in a strange land, and do much to ground the fantastic premise in something resembling reality.

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