Where the hell did this film come from? Flipping the premise for “The Truman Show” around, writer/director Gary Ross has come up with one of the best, most subversive, and definitely one of the most memorable films of the year.
Anyone who’s seen the ubiquitous trailer knows the premise: Two teenagers from the present (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) are somehow transported from the “real” world into a 1950’s sitcom called “Pleasantville”, where everyone believes they are the two main characters on the show. There you go, one sentence.
What you can’t tell from the trailer is WHY. While the kids are transported by a mysterious and VERY recognizable figure, Director Ross intends to subvert and satire the belief in “happy, more simple times.” He manages to both demonstrate and attack the sources of racism, intolerance, conformity, and one MAJOR story of the Old Testament. Maguire’s character enjoyed watching “Pleasantville” for its safe, routine lifestyle free of the fear and uncertainty that plagues his life. He finds “safe” does not mean “happy”. After the kids start inflicting their modern attitudes on the unsuspecting town, all of that black and white footage begins to look a lot like news footage of Alabama in the ’60’s.
When the kids arrive, all the townspeople know is what had been written for them. They can’t even break apart from their daily routines until the kids prod them. When Maguire shows up late for work at the soda shop, his boss (Jeff Daniels) has wiped through all the varnish on the counter because Toby wasn’t there to lay out silverware to tell he’s done.
As the film progresses, people begin to change from grey to color. This occurs whenever they have performed an act that doesn’t conform to their character. Soon, all of the black and white people left, featuring J.T. Walsh as the mayor, turn hateful toward the colored people. (Yes, they even put up signs in stores that say “NO COLOREDS”.
While the film does become heavy in the last hour with allegory, it never grinds to a halt or become too saccharine. Most of the time the film is gleefully swinging the bat and connecting with everything. The first hour is a stunning achievement. Ross doesn’t hold back as Witherspoon’s slutty character wreaks havoc over the town. She doesn’t cause nearly as much damage as Daniel’s newfound love of art (think nudes).
Essentially, where I expected a piece of fluffy escapism, I got a well placed middle finger to America’s conservative, religious right. What more can you ask from popular entertainment?