Send two 1990s teenagers back into a 1950s sitcom and what do you get? A lot of changes. And, if you're lucky, "a whole lotta thinkin' goin' on."
That's the message of the absorbing, thought-provoking, technically stunning, and delightfully humanistic film Pleasantville. It is a movie well worth seeing more than once--and not just for the astonishing and flawless digital effects. There's a real story being told here.
The plot is deceptively simple. Typical 1990s kids--Dave (Tobey Maguire and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon)--are, through the intervention of TV repair technician Don Knotts, literally zapped into a 1950s sitcom called Pleasantville. Their mother is now sitcom mom Betty Parker (Joan Allen), their father is now sitcom dad George Parker (William H. Macy), and they are known as Bud and Mary Sue.
Trapped in a land of poodle skirts and gigantic, high-cholesterol breakfasts, they try to make the best of it. Bud's expertise in trivia about the sitcom allows the two to navigate through the intricacies of relationships and situations. Although Mary Sue's initial reaction is negative, she decides to like the place a little better when she realizes her boyfriend in this world is handsome football captain Skip Martin (Paul Walker). However, she also decides to make some changes, though Bud warns her against "messing with these people's universe."
"Maybe, it needs to be messed with," she retorts and introduces the idea of sex to the teens of Pleasantville.
Soon this stable, black-and-white sitcom world begins a metamorphosis. It starts with the appearance of a single red rose. Then the owner of the soda shop, Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels), realizes, first, that he is attracted to Betty Parker and, second, that he wants to paint. Before long the school and library books--formerly blank--have words, bubble gum is pink, Mr. Johnson has painted a colorful cubist Santa Claus in his soda shop window, and the high school basketball team, the Pleasantville Lions, actually loses a game.
What brings on the color? It isn't just sex, Mary Sue realizes, as she remains relentlessly gray in spite of several make-out sessions. It isn't just art, though both Mr. Johnson and Betty find their own color through that. It isn't just the changes themselves, as there is a large contingent of the populace, including poor, baffled George and the threatened Mayor (the late J. T. Walsh), who try to stop what is going on--by burning all the books (including Catcher in the Rye), smashing the nude of Betty that Mr. Johnson painted, and drawing up a Pleasantville code of conduct that allows only "pleasant" behavior and a "non-changeist view of history."
What really brings forth color is personal honesty. Mary Sue finally changes when she realizes she loves to read and learn. Bud changes when he realizes that there are things worth fighting for--that withdrawing isn't the only response. George changes when he realizes he loves his wife as a person, not just as a cook and housemaid. And even the mayor shows his true colors once he admits that he is truly angry at what has been happening to his formerly routine and pleasant life. Clearly, a humanistic message.
Such humanism is further demonstrated in the last words Mr. Johnson utters in the film, which I won't repeat here so you'll have something to look forward to ... and think about.
Lucia K. B. Hall is a biochemist, artist, and editor of the San Diego Humanist, published by the Humanist Association of San Diego. She can be e-mailed at nhall@ godless.org.
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|Author:||Hall, Lucia K.B.|
|Article Type:||Movie Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1999|
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