A Look Back: Pleasantville

Looking back at movies set a decade or so ago and featuring a young cast, it’s hard not to see at least one member and wonder where things went wrong later career-wise. However, “Pleasantville,” a movie starring Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon, in which they are sucked out of their nineties present into a fifties-style TV sitcom, features two actors who managed to make a successful transition into an adult acting career without taking a detour into shoplifting, sex tapes or politically incorrect rants. (At least as far as I know.)

But back to the plot. How do their characters wind up in an alternate universe? Well, after a depressing day at school, Tobey intends to settle in on the couch and watch a marathon of his favorite show: “Pleasanville,” which is set in the fifties, a more idyllic time without high unemployment and global warming. However, his twin sister (Reese) wants the den for her own purposes (she has a date), and so the two teens have a heated argument over the remote control, only to break it. Fortunately, a repairman (Don Knotts) shows up unannounced, but no one cares at that point. However, he’s more than a little eccentric and winds up quizzing Tobey on the TV show “Pleasantville’s” statistics, which he knows cold, then as a “reward,” whisks the pair into the actual show itself. Suddenly, the two become the characters “Bud” and “Mary Sue,” with their parents being played by William H. Macy (the benevolent Father Knows Best patriarch) and his lovely homemaker wife, Joan Allen. Nor does anyone in Pleasantville notice anything different about the two teens.

Which of course, presents some problems because neither Tobey nor Reese wants to stay there permanently. (Getting back is not as simple as procuring a DeLorean here.) And Pleasantville is a strange place. For one thing, it’s in black and white, not color. For another, everyone is cheery and optimistic and wouldn’t know cynicism if it hit them in the face. And for a third, sex has yet to be invented (everyone sleeps in twin beds). The 90’s refugees soon decide that it’s best to play along until they can come up with a more viable plan to return to the present. So Reese is “Mary Sue,” who has a gaggle of giggly girl-pals and a cute boyfriend to whom she isn’t yet “pinned.” As “Bud,” Tobey plays on the school’s basketball team which never loses, not once, and works after school at a soda fountain shop run by the genial Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels). Jeff, a secretly frustrated artist, quickly gets tired of his job (“It’s the same every day!”) and turns to Tobey for help. He also begins to notice Joan for the first time.

Ii doesn’t take long before things start being altered drastically. Books begin to be filled in with actual words, rather than blank pages. A crowd gathers to gawk at the downtown store window with a bona fide double bed in it. A Lover’s Lane also appears and the teens who sneak out to it start changing into color. Actually, it’s the ability to feel passion, not just lust, that transforms the citizens of Pleasantville. Which unsurprisingly causes problems (there’s a parallel to more typical racism), but in the end, everyone realizes that change can be good. The “good old days” weren’t always as good as they actually were, and yes, it’s possible to OD on nostalgia.

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