There was the '50s: Elvis, Marilyn, the Bomb. And there were the '50s TV shows: "Father Knows Best," "The Donna Reed Show," "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." As with most eras, the two didn't have all that much in common. But when we remember the '50s today, we tend to recall, not Elvis and Marilyn, who exist in some kind of eternal present, but those '50s TV shows. "Nick at Nite," that great memory bank where we've deposited our hopes and dreams for the past and future, is more than a collection of old TV programs; it's a prescription for a way of life. I know, I know, it's supposed to be ironic. We watch with a wink and nudge, a postmod smile on our faces. But the joke, like so many jokes involving television, may be on us. Gary Ross' Pleasantville opens with a promo for "TV Time!"--a "Nick at Nite"-like viewing experience with the blast-from-the-past tagline "Remember, you're soaking in it." Then, after the words "Once Upon a Time" appear on the screen, we're transported to...the present, where two teenagers are fighting over the remote. Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), who has a date coming over, wants to watch MTV. David (Tobey Maguire), her brother, wants to watch a special 24-hour marathon of "Pleasantville," a '50s domestic sitcom that makes "Father Knows Best" look like "Married...With Children." Nothing the least bit unpleasant has ever happened on "Pleasantville." Or, as the local weatherman puts it, "Today, high 72, low 72, not a cloud in the sky." David wishes he lived there, and through the divine intervention of a TV repairman played by Don Knotts (talk about a blast from the past), he gets his wish. Clicking the remote the way Dorothy used to click her ruby slippers, David and Jennifer wind up inside their TV set, cast as characters on "Pleasantville." They're Bud and Mary Sue, son and daughter of George (William Macy) and Betty (Joan Allen) Parker, who might as well be named Ward and June Cleaver. Pleasantville is like Mayberry without Otis--an Edenic small town where everybody knows everybody, everybody likes everybody, and everything is just swell. "Honey, I'm home," George says at the end of every day, as if home were the only place in the world he could possibly be. Things are about to change in Pleasantville. Like one of those viruses from outer space in a sci-fi movie, David and Jennifer (mostly Jennifer) start infecting this '50s-TV town with '90s values. And the effect, both literally and figuratively, is like watching a black-and-white TV show blossom into living color. When Jennifer deflowers the captain of the high school basketball team, a single rose bursts into a bright, juicy red. Pretty soon, color is busting out all over town--at the soda shop where David works, even at home, where the quietly suffering Mrs. Parker appears to have gotten hold of an advance copy of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. But can Pleasantville undergo the transition to color without experiencing technical difficulties? Don't count on it. Ross, who wrote the scripts for Big and Dave, allows his fanciful fairy tale to curdle into a message movie as the good citizens of Pleasantville turn on one another, posting "No Coloreds" signs in their store windows and drawing up a Code of Conduct that disallows everything David and Jennifer brought with them--sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll. That whole do-your-own-thing philosophy comes out of the '60s, of course, not the '90s, which is one of the reasons Pleasantville seems rather out of date. The other reason is that it's so capital-L liberal. For Ross isn't really taking aim at television or the '50s or '50s television. He's taking aim at those conservatives who believe American life was once like a '50s TV show, and that it could be that way again.
Maybe it can, although, as a card-carrying liberal, I sure hope not. Unfortunately, Pleasantville is often as starry-eyed as the vision it tries to deconstruct, and occasionally as conservative. Jennifer, who was supposedly a major slut back home, loses interest in sex during her stay in Pleasantville; she'd rather read books. This may be Ross' idea of a budding feminism, but all the feminists I know read books and have sex. Technically, the movie is a marvel--the kind of thing an especially bright kid might create with the help of MacPaint. But Ross is too enamored with using color as an objective correlative for the messy vitality of life. Instead of letting the story drive the metaphor, he lets the metaphor drive the story. In short, he always colorizes within the lines.