Pleasantville proves life is more than black and white

Nothing is as simple as black and white.

But who would have thought so – with all those idyllic black and white television programs from the 1950s? Mothers in dainty aprons are perpetually preparing meatloaf and mashed potatoes for dinner. Fathers are coming home from a hard day’s work, and the kids – one boy and one girl – are working on a school project. Firemen are busy rescuing kittens from trees. Everything is, well, swell.

Such was the life in Pleasantville, the perky made-for-television town where parents sleep in separate beds and holding hands might as well be going all the way – until two modern day siblings are transplanted into Pleasantville and introduce the Nick-At-Nite town to the MTV generation.

The movie Pleasantville (New Line Cinema) is a fresh, fractured fairy tale, which even begins, “once upon a time.” In the film, two 1990s twins, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon, Fear) and David (Tobey Maguire, The Ice Storm), are zapped into their television by a magical remote control, which they receive from Don Knotts (“Three’s Company”). They are sent to Pleasantville, the quintessential ’50s sitcom town. It’s not quite like Poltergeist when they get sucked into the television but what follows is equally as scary.

In Pleasantville, the twins become Bud and Mary Sue, the sinless son and daughter in the perfect nuclear family. William Macy, who has played other off-kilter characters in Fargo and Boogie Nights, and Joan Allen star as their Leave-It-To-Beaver-esque parents.

The two kids discover that the supposed simple life of Pleasantville – surprise, surprise – is anything but simple.

When Bud and Mary Sue go to school, all the students listen attentively in class with their hands neatly folded on their desks. Everyone smiles. The basketball team never misses a shot.

But Bud and Mary Sue don’t think everything is so neat and keen. They disrupt the whole Pleasantville universe with the two greatest rebellious acts: sex and reading. All the kids become sex-crazed, and the books in the library that used to be blank suddenly fill with words. And, gee whiz, everyone is slowly changing from black and white to color.

The more colorized things become, the more the people of Pleasantville stray from their norm. The town is totally out of whack, and the older, conservative citizens want things back to normal. But anyone can guess that things can never go back to the way they were.

The story line is simple, but director Gary Ross tosses in many delightful tidbits. Scenes such as Bud’s girlfriend enticing him to eat a colorized apple in an allusion to Adam and Eve prevents the film from becoming dull.

The scenes in Pleasantville that intersperse color with black and white are ingeniously executed. In fact, the movie set a record as the biggest digital effects movie ever produced, with more than 1,700 digital visual effects. Through this device of colorization, the movie sneaks in some clever social commentary. When some of the town folk become colorized, some shops post signs that say “No Coloreds.” In a dramatic trial scene, all the colorized townspeople must sit in the balcony of the courtroom.

Comparisons will inevitably be made to The Truman Show, another recent film where a monkey wrench is thrown into an eerily perfect made-for-television world. And, while this movie does deliver a similar message about controlling your own destiny, the message is always a good one and Pleasantville is, well, pretty neat to watch.

Pleasantville opens in theaters Friday.

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