There are certain movies whose quality you sort of take for granted. It’s not that these movies are unworthy of consideration. Just the opposite. It’s more like the film is so solid that automatically you file it into the “good” or “great” category, and never mention it again except when someone asks you “Hey how is X.” and you answer “Oh X is a great movie.” And then continue to not think about it.
Such is the case with Pleasantville. Gary Ross’s sly, yet earnest film in which two Clinton era teenage siblings, who end up in an idealized sitcom version of the fifties when Don Knots gives them a magic remote (You just kind of have to go along with that last part.)
Setting aside the obvious irony that the late nineties portion of the film looks as dated as anything in the actual Pleasantville, the film holds up remarkably well. Aided by a great cast, led by a young Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon, neither of whom had at this point calcified into the tics that would occasionally straight jacket them in the future, the ever solid William H. Macy and Joan Allen and especially Jeff Daniels. In one of those “Blind Squirrel Finds Nut” performances that he occasionally gives. Don Knotts also gives a sly comic performance in what’s basically a walking Deus Ex Machina, proving that few things are funnier then Don Knotts cursing a blue streak.
Despite Maguire’s best efforts to keep everything the same, their presence ends up disrupting Pleasantville. Bringing gaudy splashes of color to the world, along with sex and the words to books in the library. It’s works well as both style and metaphor. Even if Ross does hit the latter occasionally hard. At one point in a garden like park Maguire’s love interest offers him some berries and just as I’m thinking “Oh well that’s a nice way to handle fruit based sexual temptation without hitting it too hard” only to have her drop them runs back to the tree and grabs an actual apple.
(Seen Above: OH COME ON!!!!)
Still for the most part Ross is able to couch his moments in character so well that discordant on the nose moments like the above are actually pretty few and far between. When Maguire gives Daniels a book of art and Daniels wistfully says “How am I going to see colors like that? You’d have to be pretty lucky to see colors like that? I bet they don’t even know how lucky they are.” It’s not hard to see what Ross is getting at, but it’s even harder to care when he’s centered it in a moment of such genuine longing.
Same goes for the other side of the coin, take the sequence where Macy comes home to find Allen has left and is reduced to stumbling from room to room moaning “Where’s my dinner?” The key to it is that Macy doesn’t play it as angry, but thoroughly baffled. It’s not that an expectation has not been met; it is that a key tenet of the universe has been violated. The way Ross and Macy handle the scene it’s relatively clear that this is this man’s version of a horror film. Or perhaps an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, which are after all only a channel flip away from Pleasantville.
There is a real element to Ross’s script and direction, take the way he handles the malice of Pleasantville’s citizen’s towards the “Coloreds” as the same gradual awakening towards sensuality as our heroes are experiencing. It’s the ugly flipside to their curiosity. The way that Ross posits that art is not the cure but the cause of such ugliness is genuinely subversive. To invoke passion and thought may be a fine thing, but there will always be ugly passions and ugly thoughts that will come as a reaction to anything challenging or difficult.
So yes consider me surprised by just how well Pleasantville holds up. I was happy to revisit Ross’ world and can’t help but wonder what else I may be neglecting up there in my “Good” file.