Rated PG-13 - Running time: 2:04 - Released 10/23/98

Though at the start its pretext looks like nothing more than a campy poke at those "classic" TV series shown every night on some cable channels, Gary Ross's Pleasantville turns out to be much more. Aside from being an incredible visual experience, it is a statement about freedom, race relations, escapism, and our nation's loss of innocence. Writer/director Ross, whose writing credits include the clever Dave (1993) and Tom Hanks's breakthrough hit Big (1988), has woven a number of lessons into his directorial debut.

The story centers around teenager David (Tobey Maguire), who is addicted to an old black & white TV show called "Pleasantville." But his sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) has other plans for the TV tonight. When the two kids break the remote control, a mysterious repairman (Don Knotts) shows up and replaces it with a special new model. Before they know it, David and Jennifer have zapped themselves into the show. Their father (William H. Macy), their mother (Joan Allen), their house, town, neighbors — everything is . . . pleasant.

Horrified, the kids must live their lives in black and white, in a 1950's town full of people with black-and-white, 1950's sensibilities. For David, who is now Bud Parker, the first impulse is to play along, knowing that if he and Jennifer (now Mary Sue) alter the Pleasantville universe, they might never get home. But "Mary Sue" does not agree. She sets out to educate the simple folk about the real world, and she starts by having sex with the captain of the basketball team in the back seat of his convertible. Soon all the high school kids try it, with an interesting side effect: Those who have been "experienced," if you will, start to see (and be) in color.

At this point, the film suffers from its only fault. As more and more people show up in color, it looks like the message is, "Life is all about getting some nookie," resulting in a rather sophomoric mood — for a while. But sex is not what's colorizing the Pleasantville residents. Anyone who makes a personal discovery, who realizes that there's a world outside, gets, er, fleshed out. The "colored people" begin realizing they have a choice, that there are things to discover — art and literature and music that is different from anything they've ever seen. Even fire and rain are new to them. Naturally, those who are still living "in the pleasant" are outraged. And the mid-20th century in America is played out all over again — the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the sexual revolution, . . . all re-enacted before our eyes.

There is not a bad actor in this film. Macy has a great moment — at once hilarious and tragic — totally lost when his dinner isn't on the table at the prescribed time. Also notable are Jeff Daniels as the soda shop owner who discovers art, and the late J.T. Walsh as the mayor determined to stop the colorization of his community. The color/B&W scenes are amazing to behold; the film is almost worth seeing just for that. The music is also very effective, with lots of great oldies like Buddy Holly's "Rave On," Dave Brubeck's jazz classic "Take Five," and a haunting rendition of John Lennon's beautiful "Across The Universe," sung by Fiona Apple.

Ross's vision of a '60s TV show coming to life could have been designed as just a silly diversion, but he has endowed it with a textured mosaic of messages about our culture and values. Pleasantville is a microcosm of the American struggles of this century, struggles that are still going on in many places. But it's also funny and fun, and Ross makes his point without being preachy or looking down at his audience. Bravo. ****½

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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