Teenage siblings from a broken family (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) find themselves transported via a mysterious TV repairman (Don Knotts) to the “perfect” town of a 50s black-and-white sitcom called Pleasantville; eventually they bring about changes in the town and TV show, introducing rain, fire, reading, rock, jazz, and above all color. The directorial debut of Gary Ross (screenwriter of Big and Dave), this ideologically confused but fascinating postmodernist fantasy is about five years off–the date is 1958, but the clothes and decor are much closer to 1953. Furthermore, one might argue that Ross, who also scripted and coproduced, is even more hypocritical than he claims the 50s were: his film is about the 90s bringing life and spirit to the 50s, yet its emotional thrust–which is what makes it so interesting–is to reject the 90s in toto, in favor of the 50s and the onset of the 60s. It’s axiomatic that we’re supposed to be more sophisticated than our predecessors, but then people in the 50s could choose between color and black-and-white movies, while black-and-white movies can be made or seen today only with arcane excuses (like the plot of this one). It’s also both axiomatic and unfortunate that our grasp of the 50s comes largely from sitcoms, which is part of what makes this movie so confused. But what Ross does with this material–a kind of Wizard of Oz in reverse–is magical, visually exciting, affecting even in its sincere hokeyness, and extremely provocative. With Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, and the late J.T. Walsh as the mayor of Pleasantville. Esquire, Gardens, Golf Glen, Lake, Lincoln Village, Norridge, Webster Place. –Jonathan Rosenbaum
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.