Weekly Wire
Metro Pulse Embracing Pleasantville

Nice is more than a four-letter word.

By Adrienne Martini

NOVEMBER 9, 1998:  Call it the Involuntary Cringe Reflex. ICR affects most folks who go to movies on any regular basis. Its main symptom is a slight, subtle ducking maneuver that unconsciously happens when a filmmaker goes in for the kill on the viewer's heart-strings. You can just feel it coming. The music swells, the lighting gets all warm, the focus softens, and something contrivedly poignant happens. Cringe.

A minor manifestation of ICR is the lump that these cringers develop on the back of their heads, a nodule that forms after so many movies kick them back there, just to make sure the moviegoer saw how Oscar-caliber moving that heartfelt moment was. It's all of those pre-holiday bawl-fests, like Simon Birch, The Mighty, and What Dreams May Come, that share the blame. I must admit that I now have a big old lump from one screening too many of these mushy works, which is why I had a hard time working up any enthusiasm to check out Pleasantville, a film whose advertising simply screams calculated warm fuzziness. Puh-leeze.

There's just something about Pleasantville's story that makes you pity the poor ICR-ers. Nineties teens Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon get sucked into a '50s TV show. The teens learn that color (i.e., choice) beats the heck out of the sterility of black and white. Oh, and they save the town as well. Pleasantville seems like it should be the same old formula with some snazzy new special effects, which won't hide the fact that the story is still as shallow as a presidential intern with a new coat of lip gloss.

Honestly, I should have known better than to assume the worst. Actor William H. Macy has a talent for finding scripts that have something unique and resonant beneath their formulaic surfaces. He did it most recently with Boogie Nights, but has also starred in such gems as Fargo, Wag the Dog, and Radio Days. And Joan Allen is always amazing, even if some of her projects are not. She's like Cal Ripkin, Jr. to Meryl Streep or Glenn Close's Mark McGwire. Allen consistently turns in quiet, detailed performances that usually fail to receive as much attention as a more histrionic actress' work would.

Allen is the perfect choice for Betty, the Pleasantville housewife who doesn't realize that she can do more than be a competent domestic engineer. It's not that she's repressed—that word by its nature indicates that there is something grander that Betty aspires to—it's just that there are no other options available until the '90s teens drop into town. Betty blossoms before your eyes, and it's not just her move into Technicolor. Her inner discoveries—like joy, like sadness—become ours and we viscerally understand what it must have been like to experience them for the first time, if only our memories could stretch that far back into our own lives.

It is Jeff Daniel's Mr. Johnson, in a way, who leads our Betty into her full-color life. Daniels also gives one of the most subtle, moving performances of his career, a far cry from his Dumb and Dumber days. When he discovers the magic combination of art and color, it really does send a small shiver up your spine. The moment is honest and heartfelt, and not in a sappy, manipulative way.

The same can be said of Maguire's David. His earnest persona has just enough smirk in it to make him tolerable—without that hidden amusement that always plays just behind his gee-whiz exterior, he would be mired in overwhelming saccharine-sweetness. He was magnetic in Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, as well as Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry, and he is just the optimistic cynic that this part needed.

While it is these understated-yet-gently-powerful performances that make Pleasantville more than just another feel-good flick, the special effects themselves almost become another solid character. They are the engine that powers the final two-thirds of the story. Fortunately, in a word, they are magical. And seamless. And potent. And director/writer/producer Gary Ross' skill and vision blends them with a steady hand so that they never overpower. At first, you are amazed when the first hints of color appear in Pleasantville; then you simply buy into the conceit that this is commonplace, like Dustin Hoffman's appearance as Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie.

If only Ross had been able to do something about the film's final act. The endgame is telegraphed by J.T. Walsh's frustrated white-guy Big Bob, and the last half-hour is predictable and preachy. It simply becomes a fight between the b&ws and the "coloreds," which becomes a thinly-veiled racial allegory that stalls the pace. Every film needs a bad guy and a community in conflict, but it's a shame that such a non-standard production took such a textbook turn.

Still, it's a very nice movie—pleasant, really—and not in a way that will induce ICR or add to the ever-growing lump on the back of a film-lover's head.


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