Gary Ross may be most famous for directing the first instalment of The Hunger Games and the very underrated Ocean’s 8 which is a lot better than it’s given credit for, but for a while he was more famous for writing imaginative, high concept comedies. He co-wrote Big with Anne Spielberg and also received an Academy Award nomination for both his work on the Tom Hanks comedy as well as his work on Ivan Reitman’s imaginative political comedy Dave.
Imaginative fantasy was usually at the heart of a lot of Ross’s credited screenplay work so it’s no surprise that his directorial debut was full of imagination but also a touch of original fantasy.
Released in the UK on the 12th of March 1999, six months after its debut in the US, Pleasantville arrived with posters filled to the brim with acclaimed critical quotes, with one in particular describing it as “Back to the Future meets The Truman Show“, which feels both correct and yet simultaneously nowhere near to getting to the complexities at the heart of what was without a doubt one of the best and most underrated fantasy films of the 90s.
What starts off as a fun teen comedy where teenage siblings David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) find themselves transported into David’s favourite 50’s sitcom, Pleasantville gives way in the second half to something darker and more complex, not to mention truly brilliant.
This being set within the confines of a 50’s sitcom, the film has been shot for a lot of the time in crisp, beautifully photographed black and white, but the more David, who takes over the character of Bud Parker, and Jennifer, who is facilitating the role of his sister Mary Sue, bring to this world attitudes and beliefs of the 1990s, the more the world of Pleasantville begins to change, with the black and white photography soon starting to burst into literal Technicolor.
It’s a brilliant concept for a film, especially as the majority of the black and white photography begins to have small bursts of colour appear in small spaces around it; from random objects in the frame to the colour tone of the actors and actresses on screen.
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Pleasantville‘s themes become heavier as the story develops. As those who are in Technicolor bring with it more modern attitudes towards sex, social issues and relationships, they subsequently find themselves segregated by the higher echelons of the townsfolk, in particular the town’s mayor, a brilliantly antagonistic JT Walsh, sadly in his last screen role.
There is the problem, especially in today’s age, in seeing a film that deals with social segregation with such a largely white cast. There is no denying the metaphors on display here are of racism. Those who are in colour are referred to as “coloured” by the Mayor, and it can’t help but read as a somewhat naive piece of wording on the part of the film.
Having said that, it’s not hard to be won over by Pleasantville‘s sense of technical prowess, Ross’ direction, Randy Newman’s beautiful score and the performances from a cast made up of such a great collection of character actors and up and coming (for the time) young stars. Keep an eye out for early appearances from Paul Walker and Marley Shelton, while some of the prominent extras include Marc Blucas and Danny Strong.
The film was a major turning point in the careers of Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon, the latter in particular putting in a brilliant performance, while the grown-up characters are made up of the likes of William H. Macy, Jeff Daniels, and the previously mentioned JT Walsh.
In the roles of Mary Sue and Bud’s parents, we have Macy and Joan Allen, and it’s Allen as the matriarch of the Parker clan, Betty, who puts in the film’s best performance. Given quite possibly the most tasteful masturbation scene in film history to perform as she learns of sex from a conversation with her on-screen daughter, Betty’s journey from dutiful housewife to someone who learns to take pleasure from her own body and her choices in life is without a doubt the film’s absolute best story arc and Joan Allen runs with it in the best way possible.
It’s indicative of how great and wonderful Pleasantville remains. It could have just as easily played as ’90’s kids in a 50’s sitcom’ narrative, but it’s unafraid to bring deeper themes and character development to the story. Yes, some of it is naive in certain regards, but then again it is lampooning 1950’s American sitcoms which, for all their charms, were incredibly white in any event on top of being ultra conservative when it came to sex and gender equality.
One of the film’s best jokes is Macy’s character George coming home from work and calling out his catchphrase “Honey, I’m home” only to get no response, and then basically going into every part of the house calling it until he gets a response that is never coming.
After twenty years Pleasantville still hasn’t lost its charm or power. While Ross has done such a great job with The Hunger Games, a YA adaptation, and Ocean’s 8, a soft reboot/fourth installment of a movie franchise, Pleasantville is another reminder of just how much soul Hollywood movies have lost in the pursuit of the dollars accumulated by franchises.
Pleasantville is a film full of soul and heart and warmth, and while one can easily pick holes in its logic and sense of fantasy, not to mention Jennifer/Mary Sue’s decision at the end, overall it is so darn lovely and magical it’s hard to really complain. A reappraisal is somewhat overdue.