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Tucson Weekly Nostalgic Tripping

'Pleasantville' Is Better Than We Could Have Imagined.

By Stacey Richter

NOVEMBER 2, 1998:  PLEASANTVILLE IS A delightful, uplifting, ominous movie that turned out to be so much better than I expected after the cutesy ads, I left the theater a little shocked. My gut reaction to Pleasantville brought to mind the exhilaration I felt when I learned that Bob Geldof and his wife had named their daughter Fifi Trixibelle--it's strange and hard to pull off, but in the end you just can't argue with it.

Gary Ross, who also wrote Big, directed and wrote Pleasantville; and like Big, Pleasantville has an uneasy fascination with innocence. This time, instead of looking at an individual little boy who becomes clothed in the body of an adult, Ross takes on a whole town with a collective mantle of innocence. The town of Pleasantville is straight out of a '50s sit-com, literally. It's a Leave It to Beaver/Father Knows Best episode come to life, a squeaky clean, black-and-white village where the mother is always baking brownies, the father is always bowling, and the kids spend neato evenings tonguing straws over at the soda shop.

David (Tobey Maguire) is a nerdy '90s teenager obsessed with Pleasantville re-runs; you can't help but feel sorry for him as he turns up the volume on the perfectly predictable show while his divorced mom and dad bicker in the background. His twin sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) is a more successful teen--slutty, popular, and practically illiterate. The two suffer from the general angst and emptiness of our time until an eerie TV repairman (Don Knotts) appears at their door and offers them a special remote-control device.

With a zap they find themselves inside one of the tidy houses of Pleasantville, drained of color and dressed in freshly pressed clothes. The two have become the teenage kids from the show, complete with calm, jocular parents (William H. Macy and Joan Allen), who are very keen on feeding them high-cal snacks. David loves the place--after all, it's his favorite show, but Jennifer can't stand the push-bras and corny poodle skirts. At least not until she discovers how cute the boys are.

Pleasantville takes the idea of nostalgia and prods at it from every angle. It's at once sweet and compelling and false and stifling. Though the residents of Pleasantville have a certain charm, the parameters of their lives only extend as far as the acceptable content for a '50s TV sitcom. Mom and Dad sleep in twin beds. There are no toilets. When the high school kids go to lover's lane, they sit together in the car holding hands.

The kittenish Jennifer is having none of this. She unceremoniously introduces sex to the captain of the basketball team, and pretty soon the fad is spreading through the young people. We all know how things go from there. Pretty soon jazz is playing at the soda shop, then rock and roll. Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels) the affable but empty soda-shop owner, takes up cubist painting.

As the townsfolk discover sex, love, and anger, their black-and-white world starts to admit spots of color. This is one film that really takes advantage of the amazing possibilities of the medium, and of computerized special-effects. The small touches of color creeping into the otherwise gray picture are beautiful and orchestrated, giving Pleasantville a Wizard of Oz mood of wonder. Then the people themselves start to turn colors, but not all of them. Then the traditionally-hued citizens of Pleasantville start to get upset about their newly colored neighbors.

There's a real Frank Capra feeling to Pleasantville--it's sweet and positive, but it has a lot of darkness, too. And like many of Capra's films, it's about the good and bad sides of community, and the possibilities of the individual. Not only do the townspeople rally behind the mayor (J.T. Walsh), who gives his speeches in front of a fascist-style banner, but the performances, especially by the adult characters, have a kind of brittle sadness. Macy conveys a low-key, baffled terror as the father who's utterly lost without his brood greeting him when he says, "Honey, I'm home!" It's as though he never could have imagined something as horrible as this. Allen brings even more depth to her role, as a shocked housewife discovering that there are pleasures in life other than cooking.

Pleasantville has all the winning attributes of a great, big old-style Hollywood movie. It's imaginative and visually stunning. The story and the characters are sweet and entertaining, and can be taken at face value, though there's a depth there too. And, it has Don Knotts.

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