Teenage twins David (a pre-Spider-Man Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (a pre-Legally Blonde Reese Witherspoon) have been left home alone for the weekend. David is preparing to watch a marathon of his favorite TV show – the 1950’s Pleasantville. Jennifer wants to watch something else. They fight over the remote and end up breaking it. Mysteriously, the TV won’t work manually, either.
Without calling anyone a TV Repairman (Don Knotts) shows up at their door. He hands them a strange looking remote and suggests they use it. They fight over this one, too, and all of a sudden find themselves transported into the black and white TV world of Pleasantville.
They are shocked (Jennifer – “I’m all pasty”), but decide that they’ll soon have to end up back in the real world, so they just have to blend in until then. David has seen pretty much every episode, so he is able to bluff his way by, and to coach Jennifer to do the same. They discover they have taken the place of the children on the show – Bud and Mary Sue. Their “parents” George (William H. Macy) and Betty (Joan Allen) don’t notice anything out of the ordinary.
David and Jennifer have to go to high school in Pleasantville. Jennifer gets dressed in the restrictive clothing of the 1950s, including the “bullet bras” that were popular. She looks at herself in the mirror afterwards and notes that she could kill a boy with her pointy breasts. As you can maybe tell, Jennifer is far from being one of the “supernice” girls that inhabit the perfectly sterile world of Pleasantville. It’s not long before she sets her sights on star athlete Skip (a pre-Fast and Furious Paul Walker). He thinks she wants to hold hands. As it turns out, the back seat of his car is going to get some action that has never, ever occurred in Pleasantville. Afterwards he notices something very strange – a rose that is not black and white, but is red.
Meanwhile David goes to his job at the Malt Shop where he works with the owner Bill (Jeff Daniels). The two get talking and even though he doesn’t mean to, David starts exposing Bill to ideas he’s never had, especially about art. Bill starts to paint, which is considered very strange by the townsfolk.
David’s and Jennifer’s actions continue to ripple through the town and more and more objects, and then even people, start changing to being in color. Not everything is wonderful, though. Where once everything was perfect, now the sports teams are losing, it rains for the first time, and both children and wives begin to question their blind obedience to always doing what is expected. This upsets some of the people in the town, especially Big Bob (J.T. Walsh).
One of those people changing is the mom, Betty, and this befuddles her husband George. She asks Jennifer what goes on up at Lover’s Lane. Is it holding hands? Jennifer says that people are having sex there. Betty has never heard of sex. What is it? Jennifer tries to explain. Betty says that George would never do something like that. Jennifer then awkwardly tries to explain the concept of giving yourself pleasure. A little later on Betty takes a bath, and follows Jennifer’s instructions. As she starts to have her orgasm, the movie cuts to a tree outside the house spontaneously bursting into flame. To continue the joke, David runs to the firehouse yelling “Fire!” When no one responds, he realizes they’ve never heard of a fire, so he says “Cat?” and they all jump up to follow him to rescue the cat they think is stuck in a tree. They do manage to figure out how to put out the fire.
One of the people not changing is Jennifer. She points out that she’s been in the back seats of cars ten times as much as other girls who have changed, but she’s still black and white. The movie is making the point that it’s not the sex that is changing people, but rather the exposure to new ideas about themselves and the world. Jennifer is still stuck in her old pattern.
The movie has gradually been turning more serious as tensions in the town start to rise. Those people who have changed to being in color start being harassed by those who have not changed. Bill’s artwork is becoming more and more controversial. Books that used to be blank now have words in them, including the books Catcher in the
and Huckleberry Finn. People are reading them and getting new ideas. Rye
Eventually, Bill and David are arrested for a mural they paint and they are put on trial. Although it’s ostensibly about the painting, it’s really about the whole world changing around the last of the hard line black and whiters. The courthouse scene has a great homage to To Kill a Mockingbird. The “colored” people are relegated to the back, upper level of the courtroom, while the “regular” folks are down on the first floor. There’s also an homage to the movie Patton when Big Bob is giving a speech about fighting for their values in front of a huge bowling scoreboard.
As I said at the top, this movie was an unexpected pleasure for me. Both Witherspoon and Maguire got to show off their acting chops, and Macy, Allen, and Daniels all do their usual fine jobs. The movie was nominated for three Oscars. Unless this plot sounds like something that would upset you, I highly recommend this film.
Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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