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Pleasantville (1998)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“Pleasantville — It's Just Around the Corner ”

I've liked all the Gary Ross films I have seen. However, this one occupies a special place in my estimation because of its celebration of self-discovery and individuality. Few films go as far as this one in showing the importance of individuals seeking their own way for the ultimate health of a community and society at large. The story has a simple premise: a brother and sister become part of the world of a 1950s style situation comedy. Their injection into the milieu of the TV show's world causes a cascade of changes.

The movie begins by showing a TV channel's broadcast. The channel, TV Time – presumably a cable channel, shows old television shows from earlier eras. Commercials promoting a Pleasantville Marathon take center stage: “24 hours chocked (sic) full of pure family values.” The scenes selected show the parents – father: George (William H. Macy) and mother: Betty (Joan Allen) of the Parker children: Mary Sue and Bud. Another scene shows Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels) who runs the soda shop.

From the advertisements the “Pleasantville” show seems like a mashing together of “Father Knows Best,” “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Donna Reed Show.” (I'm sure I'm forgetting other shows equally qualified.) After the 24 hour airing of episodes from the show, a special quiz on show “trivia” will offer the winner a $1000 prize.

Flash forward to present times and a high school campus in some large  metropolitan area. Here actual teenage siblings David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) attend classes. David seems a bit “nerdy,” definitely not a Big Man On Campus (BMOC). On the other hand, his sister Jennifer seems like many of today's female teens who often worry about “popularity.“ The contrast between them seems striking for children from the same family.

After a scene where high school instructors give statistics and dire predictions for the future, David sits on a sofa watching George and Betty Parker go through their lines in an episode of the TV show on the Marathon. At the same time in an adjoining room his mother has a phone conversation with her ex-husband. She wants David's father to use his visitation rights that weekend, but he has no plans to do so. Perhaps one can understand why David seems so enthralled with the world of “Pleasantville.”

Both David and Jennifer have plans for the weekend. David expects to watch the Pleasantville Marathon on TV Time. He has justifiable ambitions of winning the $1000 prize. Jennifer plans to have the house for a “very unchaperoned” date to “watch an MTV concert” with a popular male classmate. Their mutually exclusive plans collide when they both come to the room with the TV. They fight over the remote which gets thrown against a wall, shattering into many non-functioning pieces.

Strangely, just at that moment a TV repairman (Don Knotts) arrives on the scene with a substitute. When the repairman discovers David knows Pleasantville trivia like few others, he gives David a special remote. “You want something that'll put you right in the show.” As David uses the new remote to tune in the Pleasantville Marathon, Jennifer asks to see it, but David refuses. As they struggle over the new remote, they press a series of buttons which projects them into the episode of the TV sitcom showing on the screen in front of them. Of course, like everything else in “Pleasantville” they now show in only black and white

While a stunned David and Jennifer stand in the Parker's living room, the TV sitcom father: George, enters telling them they better hurry or they'll be late for school. The 50s model TV in the Parker household now shows the TV repairman who gave them the remote. He confirms they now reside in the Pleasantville of the TV series. Of course, David and Jennifer want to return, but the repairman refuses to accommodate them. After telling them he will give them a week or two to change their attitudes, he leaves the TV screen, which now shows only an old fashioned test pattern.

Indeed, they do change their attitudes and many other attitudes also, but that would be telling too much. Jennifer meets Skip Martin (Paul Walker), who never expected Mary Sue to act as she does, and David as Bud charms Margaret Henderson (Marley Shelton). The mayor of Pleasantville: Big Bob (J.T. Walsh), eventually leads many in the community in opposing the cascading changes resulting from David and Jennifer's presence. Do they get back to their regular home? What happens to them and the people of Pleasantville? Watch the movie, I'm pretty sure you won't be disappointed. I give Pleasantville my highest recommendation.

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Original Score CD