"Honey, I'm home."
The movie year 1998 saw Jim Carrey trapped inside a make-believe television world in "The Truman Show" and then Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon trapped inside a similar cosmos in "Pleasantville." Although "Pleasantville" wears its messages rather more openly than "Truman," both fantasies are ingenious fables for our times, good fun, and thought provoking. If you liked "The Truman Show," you may like "Pleasantville," too, maybe even more. I did, especially now that it's on high-definition Blu-ray.
So, like Maguire and Witherspoon play these two everyday, modern teenagers, you know, named David and Jennifer. I mean, like, they're really cool, you know? Well, Jennifer is, but David is kind of a geek. He's really into "Pleasantville," a Fifties, family-style program that plays endlessly on cable TV. David knows every episode by heart. The old television show is a combination of "Father Knows Best," "Ozzie and Harriet," and "Leave It To Beaver," filled with typically vapid Fifties TV people and circumstances.
Anyway, one night David and Jennifer are fighting over who's going to get control of their TV set's remote when they break the thing. Showing up out of the blue to fix it is TV repairman Don Knotts. Like, who better than an old Fifties TV guy, right? He gives them a special remote, a super control, that transports both of the teens right into the 1958 "Pleasantville" TV show itself! Why? Because it's a fantasy, you know? But, more important, because it gives the moviemakers a chance to conjure up something different for a change.
Once the kids get caught up in this alternative-universe TV land, they and everything around them appear in glorious black and white. Now, the movie could have just gone on to make them a part of another vapid situation comedy about kids from the future living in the past. Instead, the filmmakers use the opportunity for social commentary and satire. The kids don't just become involved in the town of Pleasantville's ways, they actually change them. Gradually, they teach the TV characters a new life, a new way of living, that helps them to become more human, while in the process reminding the film's viewers of what it means to be a genuine individual. The TV characters discover art, literature, thought, ideas, love, and, yes, sex. As the Pleasantville folk begin thinking for themselves and expressing more and more human passions and emotion, they begin one by one turning to color. It is not an easy process for them--nothing so complex as a complete change in mental outlook is simple--but writer/producer/director Gary Ross ("Seabiscuit") does a good job chronicling their slow and sometimes painful transformation from one-dimensional cutouts to fully realized, open-minded human beings.
The two young actors are fine in their roles, but it's William H. Macy who stands out as the television father, a double for Ozzie Nelson, and one of the last persons in town to understand himself. Father may know best, but it takes him a while to catch on. Joan Allen plays the mom, a Donna Reed clone, who finds a new, liberating spirit beneath her gray exterior. Jeff Daniels plays the local soda jerk, a man who realizes a love for aesthetics and a talent for painting hidden under his banal exterior. And J.T. Walsh plays the town's mayor, the last, unwilling convert to a more liberal lifestyle.
The picture is, of course, entertainment first and foremost, and here it succeeds wonderfully; but on a deeper yet equally obvious level, it is an analogy, a metaphor for our age. It is perhaps on this second level that the filmmakers overreach themselves by trying too hard to cover too many bases. For instance, not satisfied to let us watch people discovering their real selves, the filmmakers also try to show us what happens when the town's newly established progressive forces clash with the old-line ultraconservatives. When some of the townspeople begin turning colors, some of the other people naturally begin referring to them as the "coloreds," and they force the "colored" to do things like sit in the restricted upper balcony in the story's climactic courtroom scene (a scene reminiscent of the one in "To Kill a Mockingbird"). Finally, in the movie's conclusion things get even stickier and then just plain syrupy as the filmmakers strike home a little too hard their point about the need for tolerance and open-mindedness. It's better that the filmmakers tried to do something different, however, than that they made yet another pointless, witless, sterile comedy.
Accompanying the town's awakening social awareness are excellent computer graphics, scenes that twenty years ago audiences would have called fantastic but by today's movie standards are merely nice to look at. The attendant music also supports the changes in the characters' lives as it proceeds from the songs of Pat Boone, Johnny Mathis, and Perry Como to the more diverse styles of Dave Brubeck, Elvis, and Buddy Holly, with a background score by Randy Newman.
In retrospect, the Fifties may have seemed like a time of supreme innocence, high moral standards, and strong family values, but the film reminds us that things were not always so good back in "the good old days." Or have we so easily forgotten Communism, the bomb, the Cold War, bigotry, prejudice, segregation, the lack of women's and minority rights, and a roll call of other abuses? "Pleasantville" offers more than simple entertainment, and whether it's overdone or not, it discusses important issues and does so with imagination and heart.
New Line use an MPEG-4 AVC codec and a dual-layer BD50 to reproduce the film in high definition. Critics have sometimes faulted the studio for using too much filtering in a few of their Blu-ray transfers, but this time the studio engineers appear to have used little or none at all. An inherent print grain gives the picture at once a natural, lifelike texture and a slightly gritty appearance. The 1.85:1 ratio widescreen picture quality is nevertheless quite good, with reasonably deep black-and-white contrasts and attractive colors as the need arises.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound is likewise fine, not for any dazzling sonic effects but for its realistic depiction of rain storms and crowd ambiance. Otherwise, it's mostly smooth and comforting in the midrange dialogue the film calls upon it to deliver.
The studio carries over the bonus items from the DVD edition of the movie, again in standard def. They begin with an audio commentary by writer-producer-director Gary Ross, followed by an isolated musical score with commentary by composer Randy Newman. After those extras are a thirty-two-minute featurette, "The Art of Pleasantville," on a few of the special effects used in the movie; and Fiona Apple's music video "Across the Universe," directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
The extras conclude with thirty-seven scene selections; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages; Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, and other subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
"Pleasantville" is the kind of movie you can easily watch again and again. If you're like me, you'll find its characters, settings, and themes as multilayered as its plot. Maybe it stretches the point a little far, but it's still entertaining to sit through, beautiful to look at, and stimulating to think about. If you've already seen it, you know what I mean. If you haven't seen it, I recommend the Blu-ray investment. It's like, you know, way cool. You know?
"Nothing went wrong. People change."