Writer-director Gary Ross' PLEASANTVILLE is an ambitious, multi-layered film that can be read in a number of different ways: as a charmingly eccentric fish-out-of-water comedy; as a parable about the time when the cheerful conformity of the 1950s gave way to the «do your own thing» vibes of the 1960s; as a rich WIZARD OF OZ-style fairy tale. Or you can simply choose to appreciate it as a truly rewarding piece of escapist entertainment. Regardless of how you choose to PLEASANTVILLE, this smart, funny, visually dazzling film is the kind of moviegoing experience you're unlikely to forget.
It also qualifies as a whopper of a directorial debut. Putting a modern fable onscreen is extraordinarily difficult, and though Ross' delightfully clever scripts for BIG and DAVE were both Oscar-nominated he did not direct either film. For a first film PLEASANTVILLE is remarkably smooth without seeming slick, and crucial tonal transitions in the story that could easily have proven forced instead seem effortlessly natural.
What sets Ross' work apart from that of most fledgling directors is its focus; not only does he know exactly what he wants each scene to say, he understands how to best get his points across. PLEASANTVILLE teems with allusions to the Bible (a burning bush, a radiant red apple), references to vintage TV («Andy Griffith Show» star Don Knotts plays the character who sets the tale in motion) and parallels to historical events, including Hitler's rise to power and the Krystalnacht he ordered in 1938.
It all sounds far too heavy and portentous to be easily incorporated into what's essentially a story about contemporary teen twins David (Tobey Maguire) and Jen (Reese Witherspoon) trapped in the black-and-white confines of an eerily wholesome 1950s series called «Pleasantville,» but against considerable odds all these diverse elements come together splendidly in the course of two hours.
For the socially awkward David, a chance to live among placcid, predictable people is a dream come true, especially since he's a «Pleasantville» fanatic and knows all the intricacies of such episodes as «Trouble at the Barber Shop» and «Bud Gets A Job.» For Jen, who prides herself on being sexually adventurous and grimly anti-intellectual, the prospect of mingling with the compulsively cheerful and resolutely celibate — even married couples sleep in separate single beds — Pleasantvilleans looks like an opportunity to make some major alterations in this insular little hamlet. To paraphrase the Talking Heads, Pleasantville is a place where nothing ever happens; when these outsiders disrupt the monotony, the results terrify some residents and liberate everyone else.
The dissention even spreads to David and Jen's hollowly happy home away from home, where their bland dad George (William H. Macy) is unnerved by the abrupt changes in mom Betty (Joan Allen), who's no longer always around when it's time to serve the pineapple kabobs to guests, or to prepare copious amounts of biscuits, pancakes, bacon and hamsteak for each morning's breakfast; she'd rather hang out with a soda shop owner (Jeff Daniels) who dreams of becoming an artist.
Bob (J.T. Walsh), Pleasantville's mayor, frets over such new developments in town as workers who decide to walk off their mundane jobs in search of more rewarding careers and teens who have suddenly taken to splitting their time between the library and Lovers' Lane. Once intellectual and hormonal passions have been aroused, there's no turning back, and the mundane grays of Pleasantville slowly begin to give way to vivid living color.
The staggeringly beautiful scenes that depict this transformation were created by visual effects supervisor Chris Watts and scores of assistants. But breathtaking as it is, the technical wizardry would be pointless were it not for the movie's emotional content and resonant performances by the entire cast; these are the things that elevate PLEASANTVILLE out of the realm of pure fantasy and into the category of human drama. Beyond the digitally composed imagery is a haunting, deeply affecting story about learning to love, fulfilling your potential and refusing to be bound by conventionality. (James Sanford)