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This is not an Oscar Recap

Pleasantville

Review by Jason Morrison

If I were a real reviewer, this would no doubt be my Oscar recap column.

The award show Sunday night was in some ways predictable, in others inevitable. But I didn't watch a minute of it, so I won't be talking about who won what and why, and how wonderful they looked, and etc.

Instead I will review a movie that was up for exactly three Oscars and won none: Pleasantville. Though the film has been out of first run theaters for a little while, I just saw it twice.

The recent commercials for Ed TV have prompted this response from nearly every person I've seen it with: "Isn't that the same as The Truman Show?"

Well, not exactly, but pretty close. But before we condemn the film as a copycat, let us remember a film that sparked some of the same speculation but turned out to be quite pleasant in its own right-Pleasantville.

David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are typical (read stereotypical) 90s high school students; Jennifer, popular and pretty, sets up a big date when her mom goes out of town. David, nerdy and bookish, expects to relax and watch a marathon of a 50s classic TV show, Pleasantville. When the big day comes, their plans clash and they end up fighting over the remote, flinging it across the room and into little pieces.

Suddenly a creepy TV repairman (Don Knotts) shows up at their door. He's got a bunch of Pleasentville trivia, which David naturally answers, and a brand new remote control which sends the pair into the TV show.

Needless to say this is disturbing. David is now Bud Parker and Jennifer Mary Sue, and with the repairman gone they now have to live life in the disturbingly 'perfect' black and white world. Their TV parents, George (William H. Macy) and Betty (Joan Allen) are chipper, understanding and sickeningly repressed. After a few hours of dealing with giant four-course breakfasts and basketballs that never miss the hoop, Mary Sue starts asking decidedly un-Pleasantville.

Following Bud's advice to just play along until they can get out, she goes out on a date with the hunky captain of the basketball team. She quickly bored with the cherry Cokes and hand-holding and takes him out to lover's lane, where she manually teaches him the facts of life. This, apparently, has never happened before in the little town, and soon the whole basketball team, then the whole school, is running of the lover's lane to experiment.

Meanwhile Bud has opened up his boss, Mr. Johnson's (Jeff Daniels) mind up to a whole new world of opportunities. Not only can Mr. Johnson put out the napkins himself if Bud is late for work, but he can even make burgers and close down the place-not necessarily in the order he did before! With new ideas and all the kids going up to lover's lane, small spots of color-real color-appear here and there about town.

There's a little more disturbing side to Pleasantville, though, as well.

The books are empty, school teaches even less than here in the real world, and it turns out the residents are willing to fight to keep things just the way they are. As Bud shows Mr. Johnson some art, he begins painting murals that set the whole town askew. Betty learns from her daughter exactly what is going on at lover's lane and also the solitaire version and promptly gets to work, putting a rose in her cheeks and disrupting things like a thee-alarm fire.

Soon most of the town, led by Mayor "Big" Bob (J.T. Walsh) is issuing edicts and destroying evidence of change; the "colored" people, led by Bud, have to do something to stop the town from becoming a holocaust.

Have I hit you over the head with enough metaphors? There's more in the film. They take every opportunity to not only poke fun at the silly innocence and "perfection" of TV shows and the 1950s in general, but speak out against racism, book-burning and fear of change, to name a few.

There's so many messages thrown in-a black and white world changes to one with shades and colors; love brings about some of the first and most profound displays of color in the film; sexual liberation goes hand in hand with new color and throwing off stifling sexual roles; people in the perfect society react with violence, fear, and hatred when it is threatened; colored people are feared just because they are different; reading changes Jennifer/Mary Sue from slut to scholar; David/Bud gains the confidence he needs once he has something worth fighting for… The list goes on and on.

But for the most part none of it is too heavy handed, even if it's a bit obvious. The film is trying to say something about a lot of different things at once, but that's okay-though the message here is one pretty much all of us 90s people have already come to accept.

One strength is performances. Maguire is good, playing the geek without falling into a single cliché, and does a good job with the pretty much ludicrous court speech near the end. It's a good movie moment, but plays out as scripted as any episode of "Donna Reed" or "My Three Sons."

Witherspoon is convincing as Jennifer, though she's given less and less weight as the movie goes on, and her transformation to bookworm takes about three seconds.

Macy is perfect. Though we don't see him quite as much as Daniels or Allen, his initial portrayal of the father is eerily accurate-he really, really looks and sounds like he's right out of Nick at Nite. His utter confusion at the changes going on coupled with a general good-naturedness is wholly understandable, due in a big part to Macy's acting. That man's eyes can say more about a situation than a mile of dialogue at times.

Ditto for Daniels and Allen on the first part, and the pair, with their brand new outlook (and newly realized romantic interest in each other) do well later as well. Allen's repression is palpable through her transition from super mom to real person-she looked like she was going to burst through fully half of the film. Daniels is likable and definitely the kind of guy you want to root for-though his character's transformation lacks some of the subtlety of hers.

And of course, there's Don Knotts. I give him a lot of credit for playing the bumbling, child-like god-figure, but I have to say, that man is just a little bit scary. Scratch that, a lot scary. I'd like to see him in more movies.

Overall, I think I liked this movie most because it itself was a little bit innocent. It's hard to find movies lately which have something to say and find a kooky way of saying it-without winking at you all the while, saying "we know how corny this can be, we're doing it on purpose." That's why it was compared in so many people's minds to The Truman Show, and that's a big part of why both those movies succeeded. From some of the gags I've seen in the previews of Ed TV, I have a sinking feeling that it won't -- too many potty and sex jokes, the mark of a conventional comedy. But Pleasantville takes the high road, and though it's a little cheery, it's still worth seeing.

Rating:

(Out of five)








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