when i was younger, i used to dream of living in the 1950s, when my parents were little - although i will say that the fifties of brooklyn bridge seemed better to me than the blandness of leave it to beaver. everything seemed so much simpler then to my naive eyes. no global warming or aids epidemic, white picket fences, unlocked doors, the security of the future being just that: the future. david (tobey maguire) dreams of that same place; in fact, he visits it every day after school in the 'tv time' network staple pleasantville ("24 hours chock full of warm family values") where they use words like "swell" and "keenest" and there is an endless supply of mom-baked cookies, while his reality is filled with a nerdy existence, a bad complexion, divorcing parents, and teachers who constantly drill into him how much the world today sucks. no wonder he knows more about the fictional town of pleasantville than its citizens do themselves (his knowledge rivals my own about mscl, and *that* is saying a lot).
david's sister jennifer (reese witherspoon) is a slut-in-training who is "from the cool side of the uterus" according to her friends. during a vicious fight over the remote control (david wants, no, needs to watch a pleasantville marathon while jen is planning an mtv date with a popular guy), don knotts shows up and gives them a special remote that sends them *into* pleasantville where they assume the roles of bud and mary sue parker. if it sounds like the bomb stay tuned, it isn't; if it sounds like the inverse of the truman show, it is.
at first, david tries to maintain the status quo in pleasantville, to the point where he even figures out what episode he has landed in the middle of. his attempts to school his sister in pleasantville pleasantries fail miserably as her libidinous nature asserts itself and brings a whole new meaning to women's lib. and slowly but surely, the nineties come to the fifties: she teaches not only the high school boys, but her own mother about sex; he teaches he basketball team that you can't make every basket and the town finally learns the true meaning of "you can't win 'em all." suddenly mom doesn't always have the meatloaf ready at the appointed hour. kids start wondering just what lies at the end of main street. firemen realize that there is more to their job than rescuing cats stranded in trees.
the most ingenious thing about _pleasantville_ beyond its subversion of ozzie and harriet fifties tv stereotypes is something that defies the written word: color. to describe the exact shade of vermillion ("real" red, as the pleasantvillers call it) that pigments a rose is impossible. it needs to be seen to be believed. that's the gift that david and jennifer bring to pleasantville: the black and white world that they are transported into becomes, through their own accidental and purposeful machinations, a world of vibrant color. director/writer gary ross (responsible for another movie about transformation, big, as well as dave) slowly introduces color into the literally black and white, television-style lighted town. tiny imperfections in the characters' skin become noticeable, as do larger imperfections in some of the characters themselves, and everybody becomes a hell of a lot more human.
there are, of course, the town's dissenters, led by the dearly departed jt walsh, who want to rid the town of the "coloreds" (as the townspeople who are no longer b/w are called - first a flower, then cars, then the whole town goes technicolor - meanwhile, in keeping with the stereotypical fifties family sitcom, there are nothing but white people in pleasantville. this is an accuracy rather than a shortcoming of the film). but david and jen, as bud and mary sue, give pleasantville the gift of realness, of emotion: even walsh goes color after david baits him into an emotional outburst.
joan allen plays betty parker, a perfect donna reed type (and a character who could easily have been the woman she played so well in the ice storm, had she been placed twenty years earlier) who slowly breaks down her own stereotype with the aid of her children. william h. macy is george parker, a role he was born to play. jeff daniels is the soda shop proprietor who goes from ineffectual and unconfident to a man who defies the town fathers by painting sacriligious, color-saturated murals. maguire and witherspoon both wear their characters like a second skin, making good on the promise they've shown in past performances.
there is a lot of subtle humor to be found in pleasantville. i'll leave that to you to find. oddly enough, there is a lot of biblical imagery as well as the edenic pleasantville existence is changed, for better or for worse, forever by the nineties interlopers. pleasantville becomes a town revolutionized by sex, by thought, by reality, where characters and real people alike realize that change is possible and the world is what *you*, not some crummy tv writer, make it.
i wonder now if growing up forty years ago i would have known that i was living in the tv cliche i longed for. it's a fairy tale, really. you see, david gets the luxury that none of us have: living in a time gone by with the knowledge of *this* time. that's what pleasantville is - it's a film about a place that probably never actually existed, but it looks oh so appealing. david finds out about it first hand and eventually discovers that maybe the present isn't so bad after all, and that maybe a world without color isn't a world worth living in.
these days, i don't dream of living in another era. i like this one just fine. and i like pleasantville a lot.