Pleasantville

In Pleasantville, two teen siblings (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) find themselves transported—by Don Knotts, no less—into the black-and-white world of a '50s sitcom in the Leave It To Beaver and Ozzie & Harriet mold. For Maguire, it's the fulfillment of a dedicated fan's escapist daydream; for Witherspoon, it's a monochrome nightmare she seeks only to escape or, failing that, change. William H. Macy and Joan Allen, in fine form as they change caricatures into characters, play the perfect, family-values-poster parents, and if the film's satire of the '50s dreamworld championed by conservative politicians seems obvious at first, it doesn't stay that way for long. In a terrific example of how special effects can be used to serve a story rather than divert it, Maguire and Witherspoon's actions begin to turn their environment to color, as lover's lane earns its name and Elvis and Miles Davis begin to pour forth from the jukeboxes. Writer/director Gary Ross (making his directorial debut after penning the similarly fanciful Big and Dave) uses this as a powerful illustration of its central message: that the things that make life worth living—passion, knowledge, and love—are far removed from safety, stability, and bland sterility. As a soda-shop owner surprised to be awakened to the larger possibilities of the world, Jeff Daniels is particularly good; a scene in which Maguire shows him a book of art (whose pages, along with those of every other book in town, had previously been blank) is especially moving. Pleasantville falters a bit in its second half, tipping its hat a little too obviously with a subplot involving the intolerance of the remaining black-and-white citizens toward the "coloreds." Its failure to show any consequences of the town's fortunate fall from grace is questionable, as well; the world grows more complex, but it still seems incapable of allowing anything truly bad to take place. That might be too much to ask of a fable, however, and to concentrate on the minor faults of a fable as beautiful and unusual as Pleasantville would be missing the point.

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