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PLEASANTVILLE

by: James Berardinelli

Welcome to a world where Father knows best, where Mother cooks dinner, and where Sister and Brother's small missteps are treated with stern-but-kind lectures. It's a realm where everyone is nice to one another, where neighbors greet each other with a kind word, and where there's never any sign of lingering ill will. Obviously, this is not a real place, nor was it ever. In fact, it's the landscape of homogenous, black-and-white '50s television, the bastion of clean living and family values that has recently found a new generation of viewers through repeats on nostalgia cable channels like Nickelodeon.

There never was a program called Pleasantville, but the feel of this supposed old-time TV sitcom, as presented through the movie of the same name, so accurately captures the essence of '50s and '60s shows like Father Knows Best, My Three Sons, and The Donna Reed Show that it might as well occupy a slot in the "Nick at Night" lineup. With a gentle, affectionate mocking, director Gary Ross (making his directorial debut after writing Big and Dave) lampoons the quaintness of such TV programs by rigorously building a model that adheres to the formula, then slowly pulling it down over the course of two hours. Pleasantville is about the falseness of family values and the need of the individual to break through society's shield of conformity, but, most of all, it's about having fun at the expense of nostalgia.

Pleasantville opens in the comfortable familiarity of the '90s, with a common '90s family - David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are the twin children of a broken marriage. They live with a mother who's never around. One night, a mysterious television repair man (Don Knotts) shows up at the door and gives David a "special" remote control for the set. Later, as he's settling down to watch a 24 hour marathon of his favorite show, Pleasantville, he and his sister struggle over the remote. In the process, something very strange happens.

Suddenly, they are no longer in their home. In fact, they're no longer in color. They have entered the black-and-white world of '50s television, where the temperature is always 72 degrees, it never rains, profanity is never spoken, sex is taboo, there are no toilets, and words like "swell", "gee- whiz", and "keen" are part of the regular vocabulary. David is thrilled with the change in events. After all, Pleasantville is his favorite program. Jennifer, on the other hand, is horrified ("I'm pasty!" she screams upon seeing her gray complexion). She wants to go back immediately. She doesn't like the idea of having a perfect Dad in George (William H. Macy) and a perfect Mom in Betty (Joan Allen). But the gateway the two teens entered appears to be one-way, so they have to make do with their new world. Soon, however, David and Jennifer's "radical" ideals are bringing about changes in their environment. Perfection begins slipping away. Colors start to dot the black-and-white vistas. Jealousy, anger, and passion make appearances. The stale utopia of family values begins evolving.

The most stunning thing about Pleasantville is the film's look, which rivals that of the year's other two most visually-impressive productions, Dark City and What Dreams May Come. Color is used purposefully and impressively; it's hard to describe the impact of seeing one red rose amidst the black and white, or one monochromatic person in a sea of green grass. Ross has a reason for every change in hue, and the way he gradually evolves the film from pure black and white to a vibrant cacophony of colors is stirring. According to the press notes, this movie necessitated a whole new type of digital special effects. The first "full color" scene in Pleasantville (when the local kids are gathering in a park) is stunning. The movie needs to be seen mo

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