As I mentioned last week in my coverage of 'The Color Purple,' the celebration of African-American culture known as Black History Month starts today, which means that audiences will be treated to a variety of films of wildly varying degrees of relevance to that particular experience. Some of them will, like Spielberg's film, examine important moments in the timeline of blacks in America; but others may just feature black actors or a cast comprised of largely African-Americans but otherwise offer little or nothing that reflects the actual experiences of most black people. And while a handful of other films may in fact feature absolutely no black people whatsoever, they might inadvertently offer a lesson in sensitivity and openness to different ideas and cultures that folks who are not African-Americans can recognize and relate to a little bit more easily.
All of which brings us to 'Pleasantville,' Gary Ross' 1998 directorial debut. I'm not entirely sure that Warner Home Video intended this film to be one of the titles on their list of Black History Month titles, but given the fact that they released it on Blu-ray on February 1, it feels surprisingly relevant, not the least of which because it manages to teach many of the same lessons without forcing white people to watch a movie about black people. That said, I was curious to see whether it had grown heavy-handed in the 12 years since its initial release, which is why 'Pleasantville' is the subject of this week's "Shelf Life."
The Facts: Released on October 23, 1998, 'Pleasantville' grossed a little more than $49 million during its theatrical run, which allowed investors to recoup its rumored $40 million budget. Although the film wasn't an out-of-the-park smash, it did receive a number of nominations and awards from critics' groups, including three Academy Award nominations (for Art Direction, Costume Design and Original Score), five nominations and two wins from the Saturn Awards, including Best Performance By A Younger Actor wins for Tobey Maguire and Best Supporting Actress for Joan Allen, and recognition from such critics' groups as the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the Chicago Film Critics Society, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, among others. Meanwhile, 'Pleasantville' currently enjoys a 88 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: The film's central metaphor still works very effectively: when David (Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) unintentionally inflict change upon the comfortable and sweetly old-fashioned town of Pleasantville, they are forced to try and show the townspeople that change is not as scary or threatening as it may seem, or at the very least, it is inevitable. While Ross' "NO COLOREDS" signs in store windows occasionally overstates the racial aspect of Pleasantville's fear and prejudice, as a whole the filmmaker manages to demonstrate with a surprising effectiveness how the world must inevitably change, and how our resistance to that inevitability not only comes at the cost of societal harmony, but our personal growth as well.
One thing I think is particularly effective is the film's choice of having the citizens of Pleasantville make their transformation in a variety of ways, including sexual ones. Jennifer seduces her would-be sweetheart Skip (a young Paul Walker), and although he doesn't initially change himself, his discussion of the experience with his teammates on the basketball team rapidly transforms the teenage population of the town; but what's effective about this is that it's not purely about "doing it," but that the awareness and understanding of sex is an important indicator of growing up and maturing. Meanwhile, Jeff Daniels' character Bill doesn't experience a sexual awakening, but discovers an appetite for drawing and painting simply because he experiences a change to his usual routine at the soda shop. It's this idea of being shaken out of the sameness of every day life that produces each character's epiphany, and it really resonates as both a positive and negative force both in personal and larger societal ways.
What Doesn't Work: The opening of the film sets up a clear dynamic between the harsh realities of David and Jennifer's actual lives and the idyllic setting of Pleasantville, but it really kind of overstates their characters and the world from which they come. For example, it spends a long time establishing David's expertise about the show, when probably the conversation between him and the TV repairman (played by Don Knotts in a neat little bit of stunt casting) could have provided all of the information that audiences needed. Or, in the depiction of their family life, their parents are divorced and their mother is going off to a weekend getaway with a man she's dating who is nine years her junior.
Although the progression is generally believable, the evolution and transformation of the townspeople through the film takes probably longer than it needs, and overall the film is probably ten minutes or so longer than it needs to be, just in terms of its narrative momentum and engagement with the audience. But what really seems sort of inconclusive in a very disappointing way is the very end of the film, which seems to aspire to ambiguity but feels conspicuously like an addition that the studio imposed because there wasn't enough closure with the characters in Pleasantville. Because Allen's character speaks to both Daniels' and Macy's, it's unclear how the film thinks about the "reality" of Pleasantville, and that extra scenes inspires more questions than it provides answers.
What's The Verdict: 'Pleasantville' is a solid, engaging and effective movie that really creates an interesting idea and explores it successfully, but it feels a little looser and less focused in retrospect than maybe it did when it was first released in 1998. But as a parable for race relations, cultural evolution, or even just a meditation on the impact of introducing new ideas into a world comfortable in its sameness, it's a movie that deserves to be seen because it successfully plays on conventional notions of "difference" between people, especially for those who don't encounter a lot of different people or ideas on a regular basis.