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Pleasantville poster

Pleasantville

Starring Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon,
Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, William H. Macy,
J.T. Walsh and Don Knotts
Written and Directed by Gary Ross
Website: www.lycos.com/pleasantville

IN SHORT:  The best movie of the year.

Movies like Pleasantville aren't the reason why Cranky first started reviewing, but they damn sure are the reason why he sits through hundreds of hours of garbage every year. Movies like Pleasantville are the reason why top ten lists were created. Cranky doesn't have to wait for the end of the year for this one. Pleasantville is the best movie of the year.

[Long time readers know that I make a distinction between movies and "films," especially as we move into the Oscar® wannabe race at this time of the year. In December we'll discuss what makes a Pleasantville a great film and reveal where it ranks on that particular top ten list. I've got 45 wannabees yet to see for that statue. Oy.]

Yes, both The Truman Show and Pleasantville have real people as the stars of television shows but that's as far as the similarity goes. Cranky labeled that first flick his "first must see" ever. Pleasantville is so vastly pleasing that I would be generous enough to buy each and everyone of you a ticket to the opening show, if I was rich, which I ain't. Cranky is far more generous with his praise which, in this case, is extensive.

Consider the case of fraternal twins David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon). Strangers in town after the divorce of their parents, both are from all appearances, fairly miserable. David takes refuge in repeats of a 1950s TV show called "Pleasantville," where Mom (Joan Allen) and Dad (William H. Macy) and kidlets Bud and Mary Sue are always happy; the school basketball team always wins; the local hang out is Mr. Johnson's (Jeff Daniels) Soda Shoppe and drive by shootings are as alien concept as are shopping malls. In the real world, Jennifer seeks popularity the old fashioned way -- she's a slut. In a sequence of events reminiscent of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, a mysterious TV Repairman (Don Knotts, essentially playing God) gives the kidlets a remote control with "More oomph. It'll put you right in the show!" he promises. Which it does.

Let's remember some more things about television shows circa 1958, when this story takes place. Parents slept apart, in twin beds. No one went to the bathroom. Dad went to work in a suit and expected supper on the table when he returned at six o'clock. Mom wore pearls and high heels while spending her day cooking and cleaning. "Colored" didn't mean African-Americans, who for all intents and purposes didn't exist.

Trapped in a grey-scale Universe, David (now "Bud") realizes that all the episodes he's memorized are this place's true life. He's also sharp enough to get that his and Jennifer's presence in Pleasantville can forever alter reality (same reasoning behind Star Trek's Prime Directive) and keep them from getting home. Jennifer (now "Mary Sue") wants no part of this world, until she gets an eyeful of basketball team captain Skip Martin (Paul Walker), and decides she's gotta have some.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that good girls didn't hold hands with their steady until they were properly "pinned." Guys never experienced the standard biological reaction triggered by a pony-tailed blonde in a poodle skirt and a too tight sweater. And Mary Sue is, unlike the sitcom script, no longer a good girl.

Thus the setting is laid for what could have been a run of the mill farce, with brother stopping the sister from doing the dirty deed and so on. Writer/ Director Gary Ross (best known as a writer on the hits Big and Dave) has great fun with that idea and immediately branches off into a far greater story -- what happens to the citizens of the town when they realize that there is life outside of the universe that had been written for them? What happens when change occurs in a place that never changes?

Visually, Black and white simplicity becomes a multi-colored panorama. Elements of the town, flowers, cars and eventually people, burst into color. The music in the jukebox at the soda shoppe changes to rock and roll. Teens start behaving in other, nonsexual ways --- it's too brilliant a gag to give away --- and the elders of the town, led by Mayor "Big Bob" (J.T. Walsh, in his final role) fight back against the changes that are corrupting their traditional values.

Ross' brilliant production fleshes out the black and white world in ways that had this old soul giggling with anticipation. His script is as much comedy as it is an in-your-face take on the absurdness of racism or the difficulties of romance or any of a half a dozen other topics that you can discuss in any film school class. The songs in the soundtrack, from Little Richard and Elvis Presley to Dave Brubeck not only perfectly fit the story, they are all beautiful examples of the links between rock and jazz as subversive musics.

As for the cast, Maguire and Witherspoon have the easy part -- their characters have substantial history to work with. The tough roles go to Allen, Macy and Daniels, all of whom get to portray one dimensional stars of the small screen and bring them into a three dimensional world of character and color. Each performance is stunning in its own way, and it'd take pages and pages to explain why. Jeez, I'm beginning to sound like a film student. I'd better quit while I'm ahead.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Pleasantville, he would have paid . . .

$8.00

Ticket prices for first run flicks have gone up here in New York City. Even before it's opening, Cranky had seen Pleasantville three times. Today I'll pay for the fourth, and bring a date. Not only is Pleasantville worth the full ticket price, it's worth the second mortgage on the house to pay for the extra large popcorn and soda.


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The Cranky Critic® is a Registered Trademark of, and his website is Copyright © 1995  -  2015   by Chuck Schwartz. Articles by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2006 Paul Fischer. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of,©, ®, their respective studios and are used by permission. All Rights Reserved. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy Award(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.