Point of Hue In the stunning and imaginative 'Pleasantville,' colors bring curious, glorious changes to a black-and-white world, forever changing the lives of its inhabitants.

October 23, 1998|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN STAFF

Fortunately for us all, the world isn't in black and white.

"Pleasantville," a deliciously subversive and visually stunning film from first-time writer-director Gary Ross (whose previous screenplays include "Big" and "Dave"), uses a '50s-era sitcom world to drive that point home. And while the film is marred by some unnecessary preachifying at the end, the time spent getting there has been so filled with wit and imagination that its flaws are easy to overlook.

David and Jennifer (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) are '90s siblings with little in common: Jennifer is outgoing, sexually active and quite the dynamo; David is shy and introspective. Jennifer's idea of a good time is watching a televised rock concert alongside the class stud; David's is losing himself in the safe, mundane world of "Pleasantville," a hopelessly corny '50s sitcom whose repeats he watches incessantly.

Through a contrivance that's never fully explained, a mysterious TV repairman (Don Knotts, in all his bug-eyed and whiny-voiced glory) shows up one night with a new remote control for the family TV set. When David presses the button, he and Jennifer suddenly find themselves stuck in Pleasantville. He's sporting loafers and slicked-back hair; she's wearing a sweater and a push-up bra.

What's worse, they're stuck in a world of black and white. "Look at me, I'm pasty!" a horrified Jennifer shouts.

"Pleasantville" buff that he is, David quickly sizes up the situation. They're no longer David and Jennifer, but Bud and Mary Sue, the squeaky-clean kids of Betty and George Parker (Joan Allen and William H. Macy, perfectly cast). And they'd better act the parts.

But Jennifer's having none of that; when the captain of the football team wants to pin her, she suggests they go to Lover's Lane instead. When David complains that she's screwing up their world, Jennifer counters that it needs screwing up.

Eventually, even David admits she may be right. Her distinctly '90s sensibilities are having quite an effect on Pleasantville. Things are starting to show up in color, first a single red rose, then the trees, then even people's skin.

And that's not all. Books, which before the new kids' arrival had only blank pages, now contain words. Moms are no longer slavishly preparing dinners for their husbands. And mild-mannered Mr. Johnson (a very winning Jeff Daniels), who always fancied himself something of a painter, is not only using colors, but he's expanding the range of his art; he's even painting nudes!

Needless to say, many of the town's citizens, led by the mayor (the late J.T. Walsh, in his last role), find these changes pretty horrific, and the battle lines between new and old are drawn. Want to guess which side wins?

"Pleasantville" is more than a bit of a polemic, an answer to those espousers of "family values" that would have society return to the mores of our parents and grandparents. And it's here that the film stumbles, opting to drive its point home with a sledgehammer. When the town fathers (and Pleasantville is a decidedly patriarchal society) decide to crack down on all this colorization, signs go up throughout town proclaiming "No Coloreds." That's a cheap and unnecessary shot.

Still, "Pleasantville" is too enjoyable a concoction to let that destroy it.

The special effects, which have splotches of color popping up throughout town, are marvelous. And when Daniels' character, upon seeing (for the first time) a book of paintings by the Old Masters, muses about how wonderful it must be to be able to paint in colors, the result is a moment of poignancy that delivers the film's message just fine, thank you.

'Pleasantville'

Written and directed by Gary Ross

Starring William H. Macy, Joan Allen, Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon

Released by New Line Cinema

Rated PG-13 (thematic elements emphasizing sexuality and language)

Running time: 124 minutes

Sun score: *** 1/2

Pub Date: 10/23/98

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