From the Archives of Clyde’s Movie Palace: Pleasantville (1998)


Tobey Maguire
Reese Witherspoon
William H. Macy
Joan Allen
Jeff Daniels
J. T. Walsh
Don Knotts
Paul Walker
Original Music Score
Randy Newman
John Lindley

Written and Directed
by Gary Ross


When we go to the movies or watch a film on DVD for the first time we do so with certain expectations. These expectations are usually formed and influenced by things we have seen, heard, or read in the media whether it’s from teasers, trailers, interviews with the director, producers or stars, or even a tidbit of something we may have read on the internet. Sometimes we have certain expectations because the film is a sequel and having seen the previous incarnation we know what is forthcoming and expect it to either advance the story or to improve upon the previous rendering. Or perhaps the film is based on a novel we have read, and we enter the theater hoping that the film lives up to it’s literary ancestry.

When movies fulfill these expectations, we leave the theater or return the DVD rental taking comfort in the knowledge that it was money well spent. When a film does not give us what we expect of it, or what is on the screen fails to live up to the hype, it leaves not only a sour taste in our mouth, but an unfulfilled emptiness inside. Not to mention that whatever money you spent is now lost forever, along with the time you had invested in it.

I bring up all of these points because there are times when a movie not only lives up to expectations, it far exceeds them.

The first time when I was about to watch Pleasantville I was sure that it would be nothing more than a high concept combination of fantasy and comedy. The premise of two teenagers from the the 1990’’s who are magically zapped into a fifties sit-com where they experience all the joys of carefree living and uptight morality, had endless possibilities for some genuine fish out of water humor.

But Pleasantville writer, director, and producer Gary Ross had something entirely different in mind when he brought Pleasantville to the screen.  The rabbit he pulled out of his magic hat is a film that takes a fantastic fantasy premise and turns it into a an allegory about life, morals, prejudices, and the fact that this world that we live in will always be changing and evolving so we damn well better learn to cope with it.

The film centers around brother and sister David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) who also happen to be twins. As brother, sister, and twins, they are absolutely nothing alike and have absolutely nothing in common. David, is shy, quiet, a bit mousy, and has never dated. He fantasizes about asking a girl out, but can never quite work up the courage to do so. He is troubled by the world around him. His teachers are full of gloom and doom regarding the future, his parents are divorced, and both he and his sister seem to be nothing more than a burden to their mother who after being a housewife and mother for so many years, yearns for a certain amount of her own freedom.

So David escapes from his troubled world by wrapping himself up in an old fifties situation comedy called Pleasantville that airs on TV Time which is supposed to be the equivalent of our TV Land (or what TV Land was supposed to be before it degenerated into the useless cable crap that it is now). Pleasantville is the perfect world that David imagines being a part of because it is a place where everything is always “pleasant.”  And because the family in  the show, The Parkers, seem to be leading the idyllic life he can only dream about, it becomes David’s daily  escape from reality.

Jennifer has her goals as well. Actually it’s one goal which renders itself to a lot of different scenarios: Being the most popular girl in school and dating the most popular guy. She intends to achieve this even if it requires a certain amount of moral  looseness. Having David for a geeky brother doesn’t help. Jennifer’s world would be a lot better place for her if that fact  didn’t exist, so much so that she tries not to even acknowledge that it does.

And so it is that one Friday night Jennifer is finally able to invite the guy of her dreams over to her house to watch an MTV concert on the very same night that David plans on tuning into a Pleasantville Marathon so that he can win a trivia contest. This also takes place on the evening that their mother (Jane Kaczmarek) is leaving town to be with a younger boyfriend and she departs without nary a word to Jennifer or David.

Before Jennifer’s boyfriend can arrive a tug of war ensues over the  remote control and as their bad luck would have it, the remote ends up being accidentally thrown against the wall and shattered.

But help arrives mysteriously and almost instantly (as it just about has to happen with a premise such as this) in the form of Don Knotts as a TV Repairman. After subtly giving David a quick trivia quiz on Pleasantville, Don the TV Repair Guy gives them a remote that “has a little more oomph in it.”

As soon as Repairman Knotts has left, David uses the ooomphy remote to switch on the TV which promptly results in another remote tug of war with Jennifer at the same time that two of the characters from Pleasantville, Bud and Mary Sue Parker are having their own tug of war over Mary Sue’s transistor radio. Add a little lightning, a whole lot of sparks, and David and Jennifer are zapped right into the TV screen replacing Bud and Mary Sue Parker. Well, not exactly.

They have become Bud and Mary Sue. Although they look exactly the same to us and to each other, to everybody in Pleasantville they are the characters they have replaced. And oh yeah, they are now in living black and white.

“Look at me! I’m pasty,” proclaims Jennifer.

Shortly thereafter Don The TV Repairman appears on the 50’s type television attempting to explain everything to David and Jennifer. When they don’t seem too appreciative of his efforts, he decides it is best to leave the two teenagers where they are until he (the repairman) isn’t too emotional.

Their 50’s Pleasantville parents, George (William H. Macy) and Betty Parker (Joan Allen) don’t see anything amiss either, with George even encouraging “Sport” and “Muffin” to hurry or they’ll be late for school without batting an eye over the fact that the two teenagers might look a bit different. When Jennifer informs Betty that she isn’t hungry in response to a complete breakfast buffet that Betty has cooked up, one that would probably feed the population of Rhode Island, George and Betty simply laugh it off. Betty isn’t having it: “Nonsense Young, Lady, You’re going to start your day off with a hot breakfast.”

David seems to be able to adapt to being in black and white in Pleasantville quite comfortably. Not so, Jennifer who doesn’t have the slightest clue as to why they are going to a 50’s high school and lets David know about it in no uncertain terms:

David: Okay. We have to play along for a little while until that guy shows up again.
Jennifer: Play along!?
David: Yes, I am Bud Parker and you are Mary Sue.
Jennifer: No. No, I’m not going to do it. If I don’t dress like this for mom, I’m sure as hell not going to do it for you.

But there is one thing that helps Jennifer come around. A good looking hunk by the name of Skip Martin (Paul Walker) who happens by during their initial trek to school and about three years before Walker would hook up with Vin Diesel in The Fast and The Furious.

Arriving at the school, David introduces Jennifer to her new set of giggling high school friends and companions.

It is left up to David to keep Jennifer out of trouble and to keep her from making Pleasantville anything less than perfect by convincing her to continue to follow the script because disrupting their Lemming Utopian Lifestyle could also disrupt Jennifer and David’s chances of returning to the real world.

But as it is, keeping things perfect turns out to be a full time job.   When Skip asks David if it is okay to ask Mary Sue (Jennifer) out on a date, David replies that now might not be the best time to do so, even though he knows he is supposed to reply affirmatively.

This prompts Skip to angrily shoot the basketball  he is holding and for the first time in his life it fails to go in. Having never seen a missed shot before, the rest of the team and their coach stare in disbelief.

Later, when David asks her to go out with Skip, Jennifer is not skeptical. 

For their perfect existence, the citizens of Pleasantville are paying a price. Other than what exists within the confined borders of their town, nothing matters to them.  They are perfect lemmings living in a perfect world.  They have the same emotions available to them as you or I do, but with no disasters, threat of death, or unpleasantness to trigger any emotional extremes, and absolutely nothing to stir their curiosity, they remain a constantly happy, smiling, bunch.

When David is late arriving for his job at the Malt Shop, his boss Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels) has been standing at the counter, rubbing it clean with a towel, because that’s all he’s ever done.  David tells Bill that whenever he’s late arriving it’s okay for Bill to take matters in his own hands to open the shop.

Bill seems credulous until one day Bud has to rush out early from his job leaving Bill to close up by himself.  Bill arrives at David’s home to proudly tell him that he not only closed up, he did everything out of order.

And while all of this may seem insignificant initially,  these first baby steps Bill has taken open the shackles of his existence that he has been bound to for an eternity. And when Betty suddenly appears in the doorway, there is an instant hint of attraction between them as if somebody had suddenly lit up their pheromones with a gasoline torch. And just as it doesn’t escape our notice, it doesn’t go unnoticed by David either.

Not one to be tied down to the morals of the 50’s, it doesn’t take long for Jennifer to do her own thing despite David’s warnings. On her very first date with Skip,  Jennifer seduces him at Lovers Lane.

Later, when Skip drives away after having dropped Jennifer at her home, we see Pleasantville’s first splash of color in a single rose and it almost comes as a shock. By this time we have become so accustomed to the stark black and white world of Pleasantville, it’s as if the rose is there as a sign that things are indeed changing.

The next day Skip wastes no time tellin his baskeball buddies all about his trip to what will soon be Orgasm Lane instead of Lover’s Lane. Thank God it was just kiss and tell and not show and tell.

But don’t blame Skip. He didn’t know any better although later on he proves to be quite  asshole. Afterwards the basketball team is unable to make a single  basket.

When David tries to admonish Jennifer for what she has done, it is Jennifer who becomes the voice of reason, explaining that the people of Pleasantville are not really happy in their existence, that they have a lot of potential and they just don’t know any better.  And she points out to David that his real problem is he wants to be part of their bland existence.  She is merely pointing out the obvious.

Later, while doing dishes, having experienced some phenomenon of her own recently, Betty finally Jennifer what is it the kids do at Lover’s Lane.

In one particular episode of Pleasantville, Margaret Henderson (Marley Shelton) had baked oatmeal cookies for a guy named Whitey (David Tom) who then drove her out to lover’s lane. But it is Bud (David) she seeks out after he has become a local hero. This more than anything seems to upset the Pleasantville apple cart. So much so that later in the movie you’ll be screaming for somebody to please bake asshole Whitey some cookies.

Later, at the Malt Shop, the other kids along with Jennifer are waiting for David as Dave Brubeck’s Take Five plays in the background. By now, parts of the diner and a several of the students are in living color. They would  like to know how David knew how to put out the tree  fire.

David is unsure if he should answer but it is obvious that everyone in the soda shop including Bill, who is behind the counter listening attentively, not only wants an explanation, but that they won’t be satisfied until they get one.

David: Outside of Pleasantville? (The students are amazed that such a thing is even possible)
Student: What’s outside of Pleasantville?
David: (trying to put the genie back in the bottle): It doesn’t matter it’s not important.

But it is too late. Once you let that genie out of the bottle, you can forget putting it back in an shoving a cork in it. And as if David needed anymore convincing, Margaret steps out of the crowd.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is whats-outside-of-pleasantville.jpeg

Margaret: What’s outside of Pleasantville?
David: There are some places that the road doesn’t go in a circle. There are some places where the road keeps going.
Students in unison in a whisper: Keeps going!?”
Female Student: Keeps Going?
David: Yeah it just keeps going. It all keeps going, rivers and roads.
Another Student: Like the mighty Mississippi?
David (surprised that he even knows about the Mississippi): What?

The student hands David a copy of Huckleberry Finn. Inside, half of the book has words and pictures on what used to be blank pages.

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David: I thought the books were blank?
Student: They were.
Jennifer: Okay. This was not my fault. When they asked me what it was about, I didn’t remember because I read it back in the tenth grade. When I told them what I did remember, that’s when the pages filled in.
David: The pages filled in?
Jennifer: Um….hmm…but only up until the part with the raft. ‘Cause that’s as far as I read.
Student: Do you know how it ends?
David: Yeah, I do.
Margaret: So, how does it end? David: Well, Ok. Let’s see they were running away, Huck and the slave, They were trying to get up the river, trying to get free. And in trying to get free they see that they are sort of free already.

And at that moment the rest of the words and pictures magically fill the pages.

Before long there is a line of students waiting to get into the library. More and more students begin to appear in color as the doors of knowledge have now been sprung open and their world expanded beyond the confines of Pleasantville.

And it is at this point that the film begins to steer away from its comedic tone to take on one of a more ominous nature. Because when there is change, there will always be those who view it as a threat.

But this is not just a product of Pleasantville. This idea that change or progress is always unwanted exists in our own societies,  now more  then ever, and when change does come there are those who resent it just as as much as they do in Pleasantville. In today’s world we call them Trump Evangelicals. Worse, they would love to do nothing more than turn back the hands of time, and eradicate thirty or more years of progress.  And with resentment of that change comes hatred, and ridicule, and prejudice against those things that they cannot understand, nor attempt to understand.  Everything and anybody suddenly becomes a threat, an invader in their safe cocoon.

And just as the citizens of Pleasantville learn from David and Jennifer, the two of them learn as well. For the first time Jennifer begins to discover that there is more to life beyond being the most popular girl in school and “doing the slut thing.”

Seeing the sudden thirst for knowledge and the longing to expand their horizons causes Jennifer to do something she would never have done had she not been zapped into Pleasantville. For the first time in her life she reads a book, from beginning to end and she begins to see all things she had always thrown by the wayside or had no use for previously.  Things like reading a book by D.H. Lawrence.

And just by reading one book, Jennifer discovers for herself that it is not just the sex that brings color into the lives of Pleasantville citizens.  Only when sex begins to mean something does it take it to a higher level. And because that book has opened new worlds of her own, it becomes the most precious thing she could own. It is the first book she has ever read from cover to cover.

David has his own voyage of discovery. He learns that you cannot escape that which is around you. You cannot hide or lose yourself in order not to cope with those afflictions that occur in your daily life.

And in their own moment of self discovery, David and Jennifer find not only themselves, but begin to look upon each other as something other than a nuisance brought about by their circumstances of birth.

As we also find out, being free, being able to choose, does have a price. But it is a price that we pay for those freedoms. Things may work out and they may not. Life can be messy sometimes, and just as David discovers, it is better to deal with it than to hide your head in the sand or pretend it doesn’t exist.

This is a wonderfully conceived film. Even after giving you a synopsis that takes you about halfway through the film I’m tempted to do more. But printed words can never do it justice, as the visuals in it are every bit  as important as the dialog. 

And worse, if you’ve never seen the film, you would never forgive me for depriving you of discovering everything else the film holds in store for you. Each scene is cleverly written, crafted and pieced together by Gary Ross. You can watch this film over and over again, and there will always be new discoveries.  It is one of my all time favorites.

The acting is outstanding on all fronts. In this early role, Reese Witherspoon shows that she had already matured as an actress.  She never overplays Jennifer to a point where she becomes unlikable, even in her toying  seduction of Skip. And her transformation isn’t one that hits you over the head. It’s obvious, yet subtle, and so gradual that it just kind of creeps up on you.

Tobey Maguire is a discovery here before he went on to spin his Spidey web. When his real life mother leaves home for the rendezvous, and you can almost feel his need to be recognized by her. Without saying a word, his attraction towards Margaret becomes the driving force in his own reincarnation. Whether it’s explaining books in the soda shop, or rendezvousing with Margaret at Lover’s Lane he gets it right and every scene is as unforgettable as the previous ones. As Betty Parker, Joan Allen not only matches Maguire and Witherspoon stride for stride, but even surpasses them in a truly remarkable performance that should have been acknowledged more than it was at the time. The scene in which Toby goes to the kitchen to see what is keeping her from bringing Big Bob his pineapple kabobs is priceless, as are her many scenes with both Jeff Daniels and William H. Macy. She is moving, touching, and graceful. She’ll make your heart break.

It would be really easy to totally dislike the character of Macy’s George, but we don’t. He has lived all his life by the rules of the same dull routine day after day. He is unable to deal with any little thing out of the ordinary that doesn’t fit the script. Even in today’s world there are men who want to carry on the tradition that women should be subservient to their own needs, and that they are better off not speaking.  Just being spoken to.

One telling moment expertly played by Macy, happens when he returns home from work to find the gate open. It has never been left open before. He swings the gate trying to figure out or better yet, trying to understand how it such a thing could possibly be. When he goes into the house he puts his hat on the coat rack, sets down his luggage, and yells, “Honey, I’m Home.” Just as he has done countless times before. But when there is no response, his first reaction is that he did something out of order, so he replays everything he has done to make sure he got it exactly right.

There is not one bad performance in this film, not one wasted scene, and not one wasted sentence of dialog. And it is all complemented by what I consider one of Randy Newman’s best scores.

I don’t know what propelled Ross to use Dave Brubeck’s Take Five for the Soda Shop enlightenment scene, but it works and the music piece has become a favorite of mine since the first time I saw this film just because of that scene alone.     Every time I watch the particular beautifully photographed scene where David drives into Lover’s Lane with Margaret and we  hear Etta James’s magnificent vocal I just want to replay it again and again and again.

There is no doubt that Gary Ross’s film was a labor of love. I don’t think that audiences gave it the recognition it deserved upon its release, nor did it receive much in the way of accolades from the major awards. But it should have.

The film grossed an estimated $40 million on a $40 million dollar budget. But although some critics such as Roger Ebert loved it as did the late Gene Siskel (both critics placed the film in their top ten for 1998 with Siskel placing it at number 3 and Ebert placing it at a lofty number 2 ), there were other critics who for some strange reason tried to apply logic in a world that does not play by the rules they are used to. They don’t understand that the film was never meant to play by any set of rules known to us. It is as Roger Ebert called it, “a parable.” Thus the ideas behind the film completely escape them.

Many of them perceive the film as simply a criticism of sanitized television broadcast in the 50’s and an exaggerated look at the sit coms of the 50’s and early 60’s TV. I don’t think Ross ever meant for the town of Pleasantville to be exactly like those depicted in shows such as Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, or Ozzie and Harriet. The message here is that life is ever changing.  If we don’t evolve as times change, and when we don’t use those freedoms given to us or stand up for our beliefs, or when we fall into a pattern of unified conformity as so often is the case these days to satisfy our thirst for instant gratification then we are no different and no better than the townspeople of Pleasantville.

As much as we would like for things always to remain constant, change cannot and will not be held back, nor should it be feared. More importantly, especially in the times in which we live now, where people are quickly denigrated for opinions and thoughts beyond that of the masses, one should be able to express new ideas and different opinions without fear, without malice, and without contempt.

It doesn’t really matter to me how other critics may view the film. It’s one of those rare films that touches me no matter how often I view it. It is one of my all time favorite films, at least in my top ten.  Any film that I hold in such high regard deserves nothing less than an A+.

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