Remember the good old days, back when loving parents called each other "pumpkin," boys in letter sweaters and girls in poodle skirts exchanged exclamations like "gee whiz" and "swell," neighbors were friends, front yards were green and edged with picket fences, and life was black-and-white simple instead of plain mean?
Neither do I. But there have always been reruns -- "Father Knows Best" and "Leave It to Beaver" -- to remind us all of an alternate universe that existed before the arrival of AIDS, widespread famine, mall culture and the Y2K-conversion scare.
"Pleasantville," an amalgam of "The Truman Show" and "Back to the Future" dosed with strikingly colorful special effects, on the surface is about the loss of that cultural innocence, a pining for a gentler, kinder world.
David (Tobey Maguire of "The Ice Storm") and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon of "Twilight") are twin siblings struggling with a fractured family life and attempting to find their places in the social structure at high school. He's a bookish member of the nerd set, an introspective kid who takes solace from the modern world -- and the romantic troubles of his divorced mother -- by obsessing over '50s family comedy "Pleasantville." His sister is a party girl who smokes cigarettes on campus and eschews studying in favor of sexual liaisons when mom's gone for the weekend.
The two leave the '90s behind one fateful evening after an argument over the television results in a smashed remote control. Don Knotts, in a sly, funny performance playing off his role in the beloved "The Andy Griffith Show," shows up as a repairman. "Big, beautiful set like that, you want something that'll put you right in the show," he says, handing over a bulky silver device that does just what's promised.
David and Jennifer thus are reborn as Bud and Mary Sue, residents of a color-free planet from four decades ago. Written and directed by "Big" and "Dave" screenwriter Gary Ross, "Pleasantville" is funniest during its early scenes, when the refugees from the future discover their new environs. Their parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy) are pleasant to a fault, breakfast is a festival of cholesterol, and school means Bud's eternally undefeated basketball team, Mary Sue's trio of tittering girlfriends and a geography class limited to discussions of their small town. David has the advantage of knowing all the characters by name.
The time travelers soon enough wreak havoc, as a friendly soda jerk (Jeff Daniels) is introduced to spontaneity, handsome Skip is initiated into sex and mom indulges in solo erotic pleasure. Bits of color begin popping up everywhere.
Unconventionality, though, is a crime in this small town, and Mayor Big Bob (the late J.T. Walsh) spearheads a crackdown on the "coloreds." Ross's film suddenly takes a disturbing turn, with mob violence and book burnings hinting at the Holocaust, African-Americans' struggle for civil rights and such literary sources as "Brave New World" and "1984." The good old days, by implication, weren't as great as they seem in retrospect.
Pleasantville eventually returns to its harmonious, although newly enlightened, state of grace. The film, though, never quite regains its original charm. Maybe fantasies shouldn't be toyed with, after all.
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