Pleasantville is that rare movie that is thought-provoking without being substantive. It’s a parable without a meaning. A metaphor without a referent. It’s enjoyable and stimulating, but it’s not as deep as it leads you to believe.
David (Tobey Maguire) is a high school nerd. His greasy black hair is the perfect complement to his encyclopedic knowledge of TV Trivia. He has clearly grown up with Nick at Night, and his favorite show is Pleasantville, a combination of Father Knows Best and Leave It To Beaver.
Did You Notice?
His sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) wants to watch the MTV concert with her boyfriend one evening, but David wants to watch the Pleasantville marathon so he can enter the trivia contest.
Their fight results in a broken remote control, without which the TV will not function. Coincidentally, a mysterious TV repair man (Don Knotts) shows up at their door with a super duper remote control.
The repairman is so impressed by David’s knowledge of Pleasantville trivia that he leaves them the remote free of charge. David clicks the remote and he and Jennifer suddenly find themselves in Pleasantville. They are now trapped in the sanitary, black-and-white “utopia” of 1950s sitcoms. David and Jennifer are now “Bud” and “Mary Sue,” at least until they can find that repairman again.
David knows this universe pretty well and he is able to cope with the change. Living in utopia and having a knowable, predictable future is actually something “Bud” is looking forward to.
In contrast, Jennifer is angry and resentful. She accepts that the universe around her has changed, but she’s not going to play along with it. When she finally makes it to school, she introduces the word “cool” to her friends as a substitute for “swell.” When she gets bored (which doesn’t take too long) she seduces Mary Sue’s boyfriend (who’s never done more than hold hands with a girl) in the back seat of his car.
Her boyfriend had never heard of sex before (this is the land where married couples sleep five feet apart on single beds). So when he experiences it for the first time, a rose appears in full, vivid, living color. The next day he tells his friends about the experience and soon, everyone is having sex and seeing real colors.
The universe as the inhabitants of Pleasantville know it shatters. Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels) who runs the soda shop learns about free will the hard way. Firemen learn about fires. Students learn about books. Boys learn about girls and girls learn about boys. With each revelation comes a new splash of color into the black and white world.
It seems as though modern ideas are so strong that they are unstoppable. But after about half of the townspeople pop into full color, Pleasantville hits a plateau. Some residents just don’t like or understand what is happening. They cling to their old-fashioned black and white ways, and they don’t experience the colorful epiphanies their friends and families had.
Some people without color resent these changes that they can’t control, so they resort to prejudice and violence. The movie hits its climax with Bud’s trial in a colorless courtroom with colorless jurors and a fearful colorless judge.
Although I enjoyed this film, I was ultimately disappointed that this elaborate parable had so little meaning. The only apparent lesson is that change — exciting to some and feared by others — is inevitable. Lots of other lessons take shape, but when you think about them too hard, they dissolve.
For example, it seems that passion sparks the change from black and white to color. If true, it would lead to all sorts of interesting conclusions about what the movie was trying to say. But later, an angry mob smashes a store window and none of them change color. The film seems to say that only “good” passion can effect the change from black and white to color, and that restriction would lead to a different set of ideas about the film. Yet still later in the film, one of the last black and white holdouts changes color by confronting his own hatred. The film again changes its own rules, leaving one to wonder if there was supposed to be a metaphor at work.
(NOTE: Gary Ross responded to this question in Ebert’s “Answer Man” column. Nevertheless, since that’s not a resource available to you when you’re sitting in the theater, the criticism is still valid.)
I was also disappointed that this movie avoided some of the bigger issues that could have made it really interesting. For example, when the town is split, the black-and-whites are not given equal time. The film doesn’t let the audience see their point of view. It ignores the deep-down terror they must feel at watching their world collapse. Why weren’t there any black-and-white suicides? What if the last one were unable to change? Would the new colorful world have a place for these leftovers, or would they become Pleasantville’s forgotten homeless?
Finally, Ross let the film have an all-too-easy outcome. Conventional storytelling doesn’t let Utopia come without some cost. Utopia is too boring or sterile to be one’s permanent residence, or it requires some sacrifice the characters aren’t willing to make. Yet by the end of the film, not only has everyone become colorful, the world is still free of crime, rape, violence, and presumably toilets. A little turmoil in the middle allowed the world of Pleasantville to become a true utopia, and that usually isn’t allowed in fiction. (Even more unconventional is that Jennifer’s decision at film’s end is allowed to stand!)
Both before and during the movie, I was rooting to be won over, and I actually enjoyed the experience. But it turns out my expectations were too high. I saw that Ross was searching for human Truths, but the whole thing fell apart in my head not long after the movie was over.
Still, I did enjoy it and it was worth thinking about outside the theater, if only for an hour. That still lets me recommend this film.