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Review: 'Pleasantville' more than pleasant -- it's brilliant

Web posted on: Friday, October 23, 1998 10:22:26 AM EDT

From Reviewer Paul Clinton

(CNN) -- In "Pleasantville," the 1950s and the 1990s collide. Tobey Maguire plays a current-day nerd, David, and Reese Witherspoon is, Jennifer, his "been there, done that" sister. With the help of a mysterious TV repairman, a tongue-in-cheek performance by Don Knotts, the two are zapped into a black and white television show set in the "Father Knows Best" utopia of the 1950s.

Suddenly the two become Bud and Mary Sue (also known as Muffin) in a black and white world where life is simple, people are perfect and everything is pleasant. Their TV parents are Betty and George (Ozzie and Harriett on valium) Parker, played brilliantly by Joan Allen and William H. Macy.

Paul Clinton reviews "Pleasantville" in "Paul's Pix"

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Theatrical preview for "Pleasantville"

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But there is something sinister in Pleasantville. There is no joy, rage, passion, or intellect in this santized world. There is no change. Ever. Every day is sunshine and it never rains. Change, however, is on the horizon.

As the two teenagers slowly introduce the townspeople to emotions, Pleasantville begins to explode into ice cream colors as citizens experience ideas, anger, despair, hope, fear and sex.

Not everyone is pleased. The late J.T. Walsh plays Big Bob, Pleasantville's most influential citizen. He's the leader of a group of people who have remained black and white. They are horrified by the unexpected. They want everything like it use to be. This is where the film becomes a parable about the fear of change and the ignorance of bigotry.

Ross' remarkable achievement

In his directorial debut, screenwriter Gary Ross has created a brilliant "Alice In Wonderland"-type story brimming with social satire. Ross explores the nostalgia for the wholesome 1950s and the dissatisfaction with the complexity of the hyperactive '90s. What I really liked is that when all was said and done Ross points out that although our society is better in many ways today than yesterday, there are many values from the 1950s that still apply. In other words, there is no black and white.

This film is a remarkable achievement for a first time director. Ross wrote the screenplays for "Big" and "Dave," but "Pleasantville" is truely outstanding. The film was shot in color then the hues were drained out and replaced bit by bit. First a rose, then a tongue or a character's eyes. The movie was also lit for both black and white and color, which is nearly impossible. In all, more than 1,700 computer-generated visual effects were used.

Ross is a child of the 1950s and his father was also a screenwriter. Arthur Ross wrote, among other things, "The Creature From The Black Lagoon." In the early '50s he was labeled a communist during Senator Joseph McCarthy's cruel crusade to rid Hollywood of what he called "the red menace." So it's not surprising that "Pleasantville" is deeply infused with the rights of the individual over the blind hatred of a mob mentality.

First-rate performances

All the actors involved turn in first-rate performances, but much of the success of the film depends on the believability of Allen's character as she discovers passion and dares to be different. Allen delivers big time and gives a touching portrayal of a woman who embraces change and accepts her new technicolor self.

Jeff Daniels also gives a great performance as Mr. Johnson, a mild-mannered soda jerk who helps awaken Betty's sexualty. He's also a natural artist and becomes an enthusiastic painter who splashes color all over town. This is not Daniels' first experience with "real" life versus "reel" life. In Woody Allen's "Purple Rose of Cario," he played a matinee idol who walks off the movie screen and into the real world with Mia Farrow. There are also shades of "The Truman Show" here, but "Pleasantville" takes it to a whole new level.

There are no villains in "Pleasantville." So to plagiarize blatantly, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." All in all, this wonderful film speaks volumes about prejudice, the freedom of ideas, and the joys of diversity.

Not since "The Wizard of Oz" has color been used so graphically and so well in a movie This is one you have to see.

"Pleasantville" opens nationwide on Friday, October 23rd and is rated "PG-13" with a running time of 122 minutes.

New Line Cinema, a Time Warner property, is a sister company to CNN Interactive.

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