The 1950s are still an ideological flash point in our culture wars. Was the decade a good one during which American families embraced traditional values for the last time? Or was it a time of emotional repression and political conformity? The answer depends on where you place yourself on the political spectrum, social conservatives holding to the former view, liberals to the latter.
Pleasantville advocates a version of the liberal position. It's the first time at the helm for writer-director Gary Ross who penned Big and Dave. He is also a Democratic party activist and an occasional Clinton speech writer. His father was a blacklisted screenwriter. This intellectual baggage prevents him from taking an unbiased look at the era and distorts what could have been a witty social satire.
The movie's premise is a good one: A pair of present-day teen-age twins are forced to live in the bland world of a 1950s sitcom. David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) have been raised in a broken home typical of our time. Their mother works during the week and takes trips with her boyfriend on weekends. Except for the occasional phone call, their father is rarely heard from.
Jennifer tries to numb her emotional pain through sexual promiscuity. David escapes by immersing himself in 1950s sitcoms, which are rerun on cable TV. His favorite show is the once popular series, Pleasantville, which the filmmaker has modeled on classic shows like Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and The Donna Reed Show. The action centers on a traditional nuclear family where a dad named George (William H. Macy) is the sole breadwinner and a mom named Betty (Joan Allen) is a full-time homemaker who dotes on her husband and kids. Every evening when George returns from work, he exclaims: “Honey, I'm home,” and Betty rushes around to make him comfortable.
David wishes he had a similar kind of stability in his own life. He's become an expert on the show's trivia, having memorized almost all the dialogue and plot twists.
David's TV breaks down the night of a Pleasantville marathon. A repairman (Don Knotts), who also loves the show, mysteriously appears, and when he discovers that David knows more about the series than he does, he magically zaps the teen-ager and his sister back in time to 1958 and turns them into George and Betty's children. The catch is that everything's in black and white, just like the original show.
David is delighted with the turn of events; but his sister is not. “We're supposed to be in color,” she exclaims.
Everyone around them behaves just as they did in various episodes so that at first David can predict exactly what will happen. The town is free of crime and violence, and all its residents seem happy. But as in a sitcom, life is a little too perfect. The high school basketball players score points with every toss and never lose a game. The fire department is kept busy rescuing kittens from trees instead of extinguishing blazes. “Gosh,” “keen,” and “swell” seem to be the inhabitants' favorite words. However, more ominously from the filmmaker's point of view, the bathrooms have no toilets, and married couples always sleep in separate beds.
David encourages Jennifer to follow the script so Pleasantville's reality won't be altered. But she refuses. She's furious at being “stuck in Nerdsville” and, convinced that “no one's happy in a poodle skirt and sweater set,” she insists on behaving like a 1990s teen-ager. Her conduct unravels everything.
All the young couples seem satisfied just to hold hands, but Jennifer pushes her boyfriend to do more. Next, in a particularly offensive series of sequences, she instructs her sitcom mother in the joys of sex. Once in touch with this aspect of her being, the movie shows the older woman becoming an emotionally freer personality, culminating in what the filmmaker considers to be a truly liberating experience — her adulterous affair with the owner of the local malt shop (Jeff Daniels).
In another important step forward according to the movie's message, she refuses to cook regularly for her husband. Like the other townsfolk who begin to change their sitcom behavior, Betty now appears in color against the black-and-white background.
David acquires a girlfriend who, in a lame inverted parody of Adam and Eve, makes him bite into a very red apple. This seems to open him up to performing his own kind of subversive activity. He encourages the residents to read books and appreciate art, which, the film falsely implies, were unusual pastimes in the philistine '50s. Now he too has earned the right to present himself in color.
George and Pleasantville's mayor (J.T. Walsh) want things to stay the way they are. They unleash a wave of psychological and intellectual repression that includes organized sexual harassment and book burnings.
To suggest that this kind of political and cultural McCarthyism was typical of the 1950s is hysterical and dishonest. But it's based on an assumption which is popular with our academic and media elites, namely that sexual liberation is the cornerstone of all our other liberties. The result is the tolerance of almost any kind of sexual behavior as long as it seems to lead to personal growth. In this, Pleasantville is in many ways the perfect film for the Clinton era — a label of which the filmmaker would probably be proud.
Arts and Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Washington, D.C. Pleasantville is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America.