Review: Pleasantville (dir. Gary Ross, 1998)

Review: Pleasantville (dir. Gary Ross, 1998) November 16, 1998

The movie Pleasantville has a top-notch cast and makes inspired use of digital effects. The story also has the potential to be a profound allegory about grace and redemption. In other words, the film could have been great. But it isn’t. Instead, it celebrates reckless sexuality while delivering a rant against moral conservatism.

The film begins with a series of teachers explaining to their students that today’s world is a rather gloomy place, thanks to shrinking job markets, global warming and sexually transmitted diseases. Two siblings, David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), also have to contend with their parents’ broken marriage. David withdraws into a world of non-stop TV reruns, while his sister sleeps with one boy after another.

One night their TV remote control breaks. A mysterious repairman (Don Knotts) shows up and, sensing that David prefers the perfection of old sitcoms to real life, magically transports brother and sister into an old TV show named Pleasantville. David and Jennifer suddenly find themselves filling the shoes of two black-and-white teens stuck in a black-and-white world populated by people with black-and-white ideas.

Things begin to get colourful when Jennifer has sex with the captain of the basketball team. Other students get the message, and all the unleashed passion brings them colour and life. Jennifer even teaches her sitcom mother Betty (Joan Allen) how to masturbate. Betty then has an affair with Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels), a local soda jerk with artistic ambitions.

Sex is not the only thing that transforms; books and art do the job too. Jennifer, for whom sex is more of a habit than a passion, doesn’t earn her fleshtones until she puts on her glasses and reads a book. But the book happens to be written by D.H. Lawrence, who she finds “kinda sexy.” Mr. Johnson shocks everyone by painting a nude portrait of Betty in his diner’s window.

These changes agitate the monochromatic neighbours, and the film, which began on such a whimsical note, turns serious as angry conservatives burn books, smash windows, and taunt the “coloured” women in town. “It’s a question of values,” says political heavyweight Big Bob (J.T. Walsh), and with that line he confirms that there is nothing subtle or metaphorical about the story surrounding him.

Director Gary Ross, son of a screenwriter who was blacklisted in the 1950s, has an axe to grind. Any film that puts real humans inside an artificial world is bound to have theological overtones, and Pleasantville delivers with its subversive use of biblical imagery. In a scene that evokes Genesis, a girl plucks an apple from a tree and gives it to David; when David next makes contact with the TV repairman, the exasperated fix-it guy says that if they are going to screw up what used to be a perfect TV show, David and Jennifer don’t deserve to live in such a “paradise.”

But paradise, as far as this film is concerned, is boring; far better to break out of the cage God built than to live in simple harmony. This is an old and popular theme in speculative fiction. The various permutations of Star Trek have consistently toed this line. The Truman Show also presented an individual who rejects the perfect life, as well as the godlike TV producer who created it for him, in favour of following his own romantic passions.

But is it enough to embrace passion for its own sake? What happens when passions clash? Pleasantville cheats a bit and skirts these questions. Sexual activity brings none of the anxieties of real life: there are no STDs, no unwarranted pregnancies and no jealousies. Thus the film dodges its own most pressing questions.

In the end, the characters have no clear idea what to do with their freedom, but they look forward to their directionless futures with wonder nonetheless. Why they should do so is puzzling. Pleasantville, in its earliest scenes, has already spelled out the unpleasant effects of broken marriages and “non-monogamous sex.” The film, in subverting one old fantasy, simply replaces it with another: the belief that we can turn a blind eye to the real world, and that we can indulge ourselves freely without consequence.

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