Exile in "Pleasantville"

Director Gary Ross fetishizes the '50s in this high-concept parable about the dangers of conformity.

By Charles Taylor
October 23, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)
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"Pleasantville" is racked with contradictory impulses. This first feature written and directed by Gary Ross (who co-wrote "Big") starts out as a satirical fantasy about a teenage brother and sister (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) projected into a black-and-white '50s sitcom and winds up as a somewhat heavy-handed parable of totalitarianism and racial discrimination, with deliberate echoes of "1984," "Fahrenheit 451" and Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." Both ambitious and simple-minded, "Pleasantville" combines technical sophistication with a rather limited imagination. Ross wants to process everything of the '50s and early '60s -- from "Father Knows Best" to rock 'n' roll to the brutalization of civil rights marchers -- into a package as neatly wrapped as a slice of American cheese. He's clearly working off the now familiar equation of the present with the conformist '50s. Ross wants to tell us that the rigid controls that religious and political authority figures try to put on us run contrary to both our natures and the meanings of democracy. He wants us to accept that change and uncertainty and even inchoate upheaval are a necessary part of democracy. But "Pleasantville" is exceedingly tidy. A fantasy about the crazy way in which freedom has the power to literally change the way the world looks should bust out all over the place. But if this were a civics-class project, it'd be a shoo-in for an "A."

In outline, Ross' sketch of how change came about in the '50s feels exactly right: through the combined forces of sex and rock 'n' roll. Those elements are embodied in Witherspoon's character. She can't stand the suburban Disneyland that her brother has landed her in, despises its Rotary Club boosterism, its church-social niceness. And when she realizes that she has the power to knock the place topsy-turvy just by refusing to play the role of poodle-skirted good girl, she can't wait to raise some hell. With her face set hard and mean, like a pint-size Lauren Bacall, Witherspoon gives the movie a jolt of surly contempt that keeps it going through the clumsy and sluggish scenes establishing the premise. She's a spiritual descendant of the little sister in Preston Sturges' "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek," who looked at her small town and saw only rubes and suckers. When the captain of the basketball team takes Witherspoon to Lovers' Lane, he's hoping, maybe, to hold her hand. Instead, she jumps him, and after he drops her off that night, this BMOC notices the first bit of change to come over Pleasantville: a rose that, in contrast to the rest of its gray, monochrome world, has turned bright red.


Soon kids are making out in the soda shop while "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" pours from the jukebox. They get wind that Maguire and Witherspoon are from somewhere else and start questioning them about the world outside Pleasantville. Suddenly, books that existed only as mysterious names garnishing the spines of bound blank pages begin filling up with text as Maguire tells the story of each. Reading becomes the new fad among teenagers. As the town's imagination expands, things begin converting to full color -- even Maguire and Witherspoon's June Cleaver mom (Joan Allen) and Maguire's boss at the soda shop (Jeff Daniels), who sees the blossoming of color as a way to fulfill his dreams of becoming an artist. And, of course, in order to keep the movie on its social-political parable track, there have to be a whole bunch of narrow-minded nasties who don't like the new changes at all. These include William H. Macy as Allen's husband, a man deeply suspicious of what his wife has become, and the late J.T. Walsh as the mayor whose determination to restore conformist decency reveals a fascist streak. (Allen, Macy and especially Daniels are all touching, but the parts are ready-made, facile. Luckily, they're all good enough actors to keep the schmaltz levels down.)

It's tough not to respond to the visual cleverness of "Pleasantville" (the cinematographer was John Lindley). In one scene, Maguire gets a date with the school's cute cheerleader (Marley Shelton) and drives her to Lovers' Lane while pink cherry blossoms swirl around their black-and-white car and Etta James' "At Last" plays on the soundtrack. Ross' use of music is frequently wonderful. When the kids question Maguire about life in the world they can't imagine and we hear Joe Morello's drum solo from the Dave Brubeck Quartet's "Take Five," we might as well be listening to the expectant beat of their hearts. Best of all is the moment when "the coloreds" (as the non-black-and-white people are referred to) are holed up in the soda shop and Maguire, in defiance of the new rules of civic behavior, goes to the jukebox and punches up Buddy Holly's "Rave On": Ross shows us the kids' saddle shoes tentatively yet helplessly swaying in time, and the hiccuping "well-eh-ell-eh-ell" of Holly's voice rolls out before them, sketching an expanse as vast and unbounded as Monument Valley. (There is one bad musical choice: the use of the Fleetwoods' "Mr. Blue" to define polite, soulless white pop. Anyone who can't hear the tremulous heartache in Gary Troxel's voice just isn't listening.)

Ross understands that sex and music and books are all things that question society's assumptions. I like that he gives equal weight to great sex and Buddy Holly and Cezanne's still lifes and "Huckleberry Finn," that he's tuned in to how all those things can hit you like a freight train when you first encounter them, and for years after. They're all catalysts here.


Ross wants the smooth unruffled surface of '50s sitcoms to stand for America's fantasy image of itself during that decade, a place that had banished even the admission that real life contained dirt and messy complications. The movie presents Maguire's fascination with the sitcom "Pleasantville" as a symptom of his yearning for a world where he won't have to deal with his parents' broken marriage, the threats of AIDS and ozone depletion, his potential future inability to find work. Too often, Ross wants to pretend his metaphor of the '50s-as-sitcom is an accurate reflection of the decade itself. In other words, Ross condescends to the past by using a false version of it in order to make it seem simple-minded. Sure the '50s needed the shaking up that Elvis brought. But the people who chose to withdraw into pristine, squeaky-clean suburban life were reacting to the aftereffects of World War II and the hovering fear of the bomb. In "Pleasantville," they're just genial idiots.

But while Ross is trying to claim that the Eisenhower years were the same thing as "Leave It to Beaver," he's also fetishizing them. The changes that take place in "Pleasantville" aren't the kind you might expect visitors from the future to wreak. The town doesn't get noisier or dirtier; the pace of life doesn't become faster. Instead the town gets prettier. Color starts breaking out on cars and shrubbery and clothing until soon we're looking at a brochure for the beautification of America. When graffiti rears its head, it's as celebratory murals. If "Pleasantville" is trying to show the sinister controlling element of conformity, why does Ross treat his town with kid gloves? Why the hell doesn't he give in to the impulse to doodle all over it? The movie desperately needs an infusion of anarchic disrespect. Doesn't even one kid feel like smoking a cigarette, or talking back to his parents, or not going to the library? And why does a movie that makes such a stink about authority figures who sit in judgment of other people's behavior wind up having Witherspoon announce that she needs to stop being a slut (the character's words) and hunker down and study -- particularly when her unbridled sexuality is what begins the loosening up in the first place? The message that teens who explore their sexuality are headed for trouble is exactly the same drivel issuing from the cultural ayatollahs Ross is excoriating. (Ross would not have been pleased to listen to the group of young women I overheard after the movie, who were ticked off about the change that comes over Witherspoon.)

"Pleasantville" will invite inevitable comparisons to "The Truman Show" as a satire on the media and suburbia. But, on some level, Gary Ross wants this world to stand for an actual reflection of sheltered suburbia. The point of "The Truman Show" was that Truman's constructed world had no relation to the real one: What it reflected was what people in power have told us life should be like, a namby-pamby "morning in America" fantasy. (I'd love to ask those critics who claimed the American public would never buy into a fantasy like Truman's world why they think millions of Americans voted for Ronald Reagan?) "The Truman Show" is about literally busting out of your world; "Pleasantville" is about giving it a fresh coat of paint. The movie's aesthetic -- doting on every white picket fence and park gazebo and trim downtown avenue -- gives the lie to its message. You get the feeling that if Ross drove through this town and passed a "Come Back Soon!" sign, he'd turn the car around and head for the first real estate agent he could find.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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