The True Man Show

Pleasantville
area theaters, starts Friday

There are many routes into Pleasantville, all of them...well, pleasant. But the ironic, postmodern one is the straightest and least interesting. This is a movie about magical media-travel (modern teens end up in '50s sitcom world), and it's directed by the guy who wrote both Big and Dave (kindhearted boy-men play someone bigger or more powerful). But Gary Ross's directing debut is more about heart than high-concept; beyond its basic trick, it's an ode to the wonders of doubt and insecurity. In that, it's also a corrective to the shallow reality/fantasy cultural debate we've been having since before Dan Quayle complained about Murphy Brown's baby.

Tune in yesterday: the '50s sitcom world of Pleasantville
Tune in yesterday: the '50s sitcom world of Pleasantville

With its black-and-white-vs.-color visual magic, Pleasantville is easily sold. Having seen The Truman Show, or any number of skits on Saturday Night Live or Roseanne, or any other self-conscious sitcom, who among us wouldn't recognize that the movie's making a smug joke about TV fictions and modern-day dysfunctions? But this film, even more so than The Truman Show, doesn't tip its hat so easily. It could even be argued that Pleasantville's main blessing is that it never fully explains itself. This makes it a rarity, a movie you can slide into and then get stuck with--happily.

David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are mismatched twins in your typical third-ring suburb. He's a geek, she's a gum-snapping flirt. Their parents are divorced, not amicably. And now the twins face a weekend alone. Jennifer's plan is to seduce a new boy, while David's is to snuggle in with a marathon cable broadcast (complete with trivia contest) of Pleasantville--a sitcom so well-worn that David knows its least important details. The twins squabble and break the remote; a mysterious repairman (Don Knotts) shows up immediately to provide a weird, turbo-charged replacement; and the story's arcs are off and soaring. One click of the new remote turns David and Jennifer into Bud (a.k.a. "Sport") and Mary Sue (a.k.a. "Muffin") Parker, the central teens of Pleasantville.

Even with Don Knotts's curious leer, this "magical" setup is a little off. But once Bud and Mary Sue accept the fact that they're now among fictions, Pleasantville--movie and fake TV show both--draws full attention. The first obstacle is niceness: How to negotiate a table absurdly full of pancakes, waffles, toast, eggs, bacon, sausage, and ham steak? How to deal with mother Betty (Joan Allen) and father George (William H. Macy), who are cheerful and empty to a pathological degree? Why are there no words in the high school's textbooks, and why is a geography lesson limited to Main and Elm Streets? These are just opening questions.

As they try to stay themselves among "people" who are predigested in a perfect fantasy town, David/Bud and Jennifer/Mary Sue realize that their own limited knowledge amounts to wisdom. Lover's Lane is where the teens of Pleasantville "hold hands" and sit chastely apart while parked side by side in groups; Mary Sue shows her pals there's more to lust than that. Education here amounts to brief and repeatable discussions of nice, empty things, but when David acknowledges he's actually read Huckleberry Finn and heard of other places, he becomes a tutor extraordinaire; he turns reading into a fad. What makes this continually worth watching is that instead of the usual aw-shucks joking of similar fish-out-of-water movies, Pleasantville presents its inhabitants as genuinely fascinated by, and serious about, personal growth.

Pop psychology has long talked about the "scripts" we trap ourselves in, but the way Pleasantville confronts its own script is more complex than that. On one level, the movie is a Brecht/Pirandello/Rod Serling tale about characters who realize they're made up. On another, it's about people who discover their inner worrywarts; all this new knowledge is liberating (especially the Lover's Lane stuff), but it undermines the certainties that have kept Pleasantville (and Pleasantville) so stable. This mild mass hysteria is best registered on the face of Bill (Jeff Daniels), Bud's employer at the malt shop. When Bud comes late to work, Bill can't break free from the routine tasks of opening the place, and remains stuck, wiping the counter. After Bud suggests he could do a few things on his own, and once he tries the advice, Bill is a more-than-changed man: He's an independent guy, a freethinker. Formerly content to paint happy Christmas scenes on the window once a year, he discovers the difference between illustration and fine art--one of the film's more clever metaphors.

The other big metaphor is that self-knowledge brings on the color: First flowers, then tongues, then various pieces and parts of bodies and rooms show up in "true color." (Thankfully, this is one metaphor that isn't oversold.) And the biggest, but not the only, revelation to the folks of Pleasantville is that sex exists. There are some simple laughs when Betty Sue explains it all to Mom--but when Mom counters that "Your father wouldn't do anything like that," Betty Sue offers some private relaxation tips, and later we find Mom in the bathtub exploring her nether regions while Dad waits befuddled in his twin bed. Mom starts to see color, and her erotic release sets a tree on fire. And the firemen don't know how to put it out, since all they've ever done on TV is save kittens.

From a literal-but-magical fire, Pleasantville segues confidently to the flames of ideology. Once-solid assumptions and tastes erode: The malt shop's jukebox now plays Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis, and the basketball team loses a game. Here the whole project threatens to go off track, and things are explained more often than necessary, but essentially we've got a proto-fascist repression on our hands. The "coloreds" (characters gone beyond monochrome) are ostracized; the books that now have words in them are burned; and Bud, Mary Sue, and even Mom are practically fugitives. The Twilight Zone was also capable of this kind of homebaked horror, but Pleasantville notches it up with visual as well as narrative touches. Once the changes are going full tilt, it's an easy but powerful stylistic step from the bland, flat lighting in the foyer where Dad bellows, "Honey! I'm home!" to a more starkly shadowed shot of the same greeting. Suddenly we're in Noirville: Father Knows Least on a Dead-End Street.

Aside from its own pleasures, Pleasantville makes a perfect zeitgeist film. It goes beyond the insights of earlier real/fantasy movies (Zelig, Forrest Gump, Bob Roberts), and the presence of Jeff Daniels, who played the confused actor/real person in The Purple Rose of Cairo, is a polite nod to that tradition. Daniels, Macy, Allen, and the late J.T. Walsh are the only genuine and familiar "stars" in this movie, which is uniformly well-acted but mostly by unfamous faces--which adds to the illusion of the fiction.

The current move afoot among historians and pundits to declare our late-millennium life as a media-created, celebrity-dominated world is essentially sound; but it was new long ago, back when the telegraph first made people aware of the importance of people they'd never meet. Like Truman Burbank, we all live in a world our media have made. But we also remain ourselves, unscripted and riddled with twisty, unpredictable hopes and worries and desires.

And Pleasantville knows this, however much it may seem to be recycling elements of earlier skits, shows, or movies. Thanks to a sincere and honestly ambiguous attitude, Gary Ross's movie wants to explore what in fact it is that makes things "real"--through the mechanisms of a story, of course. Ross pulls it off, because he realizes that at heart his story is about growing up. The characters/residents of Pleasantville are never more interesting than when they are sad for the first time, and then happy because sadness is a challenge and not an obstacle. They're complete fakes, but their eagerness to be wounded--and survive--is completely real.

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