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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Pleasantville (1998)



Reviews and Comments

Pleasantville is a high concept film that sounds like it'll be an interesting but forgettable one-joke movie. It turns out to be not just an intriguing escapist comedy but also a thought-provoking, profound social commentary. The concept is this: two teenagers from real life in the 1990s get transported into a 1950s sitcom (one like The Donna Reed Show, Father Knows Best, or Leave It To Beaver -- interestingly, in the beginning the film shows the logo for The Honeymooners, the sitcom least like Pleasantville's stereotype of fifties' sitcoms). The first part of the movie is content to be a light comedy that toys with the obvious possibilities. But then the movie becomes something more important than that, with important things to say.

Unlike the popular notion that life in the fifties was basically good and things have declined since then, Pleasantville shows how some things have gotten better. In the world of fifties' sitcoms, people don't experience emotions that stray far from "pleasant." But stronger emotions are buried within them, and the movie denounces their repression.

It is important to remember that the comparison of mindsets is not between those of the 1990s and the 1950s. It's between the 1990s and the sitcom mindsets of the 1950s, much simpler and, well, pleasant, that real life ever was. So how does this reflect what Pleasantville has to say? I don't know. I don't think the movie was made as a savage attack of sitcoms. I tend to think they were chosen as targets just because they illustrate so well the opposite extreme that Pleasantville holds in such high regard.

I must point out that I don't always agree with Pleasantville. I differ with it both on moral grounds and also on purely philosophical grounds. Some of what it says rubs me the wrong way. But I don't think it's necessary that I agree with it to appreciate it. (Although this is a widely accepted critical ideal, I don't often say that about films in which a social or moral message is a central theme.) Pleasantville works because of the sheer depth of its insight, and while it takes a stand, it leaves a lot open-ended as well. I've thought much about the points raised by this movie since seeing it, and I've still not mulled everything over to my satisfaction. It is rare that a movie can provide food for thought in such quantity let alone quality. On top of it all, it's very funny. I recommend this movie wholeheartedly, with the stipulation that it's not for kids, in spite of its PG-13 rating.