Pleasantville - rated TEPID

I saw the trailer of this film and I thought "Wow! What a great idea!" Now, having seen the film, I'm afraid that's still the best I can say about it.

It's a great idea, and it works brilliantly for the first 30 minutes or so, and then it has nowhere to go. It's a fine allegory in theory, but not in practice.

That's a shame, because the production design is terrific (although it does remind me of how brilliant The Truman Show was). And it has some wonderful actors, including Joan Allen (so marvellous as icon moms of previous eras in The Ice Storm and Nixon ), Willam H Macy and Tobey Maguire (The Ice Storm , also). Tobey works hard to make an original mark on this "high concept" movie, and he is engaging, and in a scene with Joan Allen, very tender. There is also a nice performance by Reese Witherspoon, whose work I've not caught before. Like Alicia Silverstone, she does a nice line in irony.

But all in all, it doesn't work. The logic is all cock-eyed. A black-and-white world that looks superficially like a paradise - the good old days - is actually a straight old boring and sanitised place. So far, so good. Now introduce sex (or perhaps passion, or emotion, or something ) and colour starts busting out all over. This is A GOOD THING. is until things get a bit hot-blooded., and suddenly the Chamber of Commerce meeting looks like a Nuremberg Rally. The only thing to do is to continue to encourage civil disobedience, and convert the town to technicolour, then get out. Go back to today,where things aren't quite as bad as they seem, right? Or stay in the past. Which is no longer the boring place it was. Whatever. As long as you learn something, right. Like Huckleberry Finn, or DH Lawrence or JD Salinger or Turner or Monet or Van Gogh. All at the cutting edge of comtemporary art and culture, right? Well, actually, no, not even in 1958, when the movie's set.

Frankly, I'm still not sure what the director and writer had in mind with Pleasantville. The director and witer is Gary Ross, who wrote Big and Dave (both "high concept" movies, as it happens, and both modern fables). But here I think he's lost his way. Think how satisfying The Truman Show was, both in its internal and external logic. Then compare Pleasantville.

To be honest, I was confused about the confusion in this film. I couldn't quite put my finger on what was wrong with it. Then, after writing the above, I clicked into one of my favourite websites, "Mr Cranky", and this is what he had to say:

    "The dialectic going on in this movie is supposed to be between change and the status quo...However, as any good Hegelian knows, there can be no dialectic between change and the status quo because change is the outcome of any dialectic."

And there you have the problem, in a nutshell. Trust Mr Cranky to put it into words.

On the other hand, how can you dislike a film which has Don Knotts appear as a cosmic TV repairman?

The film ends with Fiona Apple (today) singing an old soppy John Lennon song, Across the Universe (olden days). If that isn't emblematic of the confusion in this film, I'm Barbara Billingsley.
© Michèle M Asprey 1999