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MAGICVILLE

 
Gary Ross, writing and directing Pleasantville, has achieved an amalgam of magic realism effects by borrowing from so many sources—50s sitcoms, the “That’s Our Rosey” episode from Roseannefrom Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Fahrenheit 451, The Stepford Wives, Peggy Sue Got Married, Back to the Future and others too numerous to mention—that what appears to be an overdose metaphor on our entertainment-guided culture could become almost dangerous because you might too easily succumb to ass-squirming. But keep watching: Ross pulls out of the goo, infusing a 90s sensibility into that wretched and very hazardous suburban Eisenhower era to make a challenging if much less erudite version of Gabriel García Márquez: Pleasantville is a 90s update of a 50s Americanized Macondo. Here is a place where its citizens have heard about rain but never experienced it; a place where no one knows what the conclusions of books are; where people see everything in monochromatic hues; where there are bathrooms but no toilets; where firemen have never seen fire; where a store showcases a double bed in one of its front windows to the shock of the community. It’s McCarthyville without the virulent anti-Commie nonsense but with all its deadening black and white conformity. I don’t know if we’re supposed to contrast Ross to one of the world’s greatest writers but that hardly matters: the more you contemplate Pleasantville, the more valid the connection; this movie is more García Márquez in spirit and audacious enchantment than any movie version of his works. The cast is just right: Time travellers Toby Maguire and sister Reese Witherspoon (in an infectiously fun performance) change Pleasantville into sensual chaos. There’s at least one question that doesn’t get answered: What’s little Toby going to tell his mother about Reese’s absence? (Another: If Pleasantville knows no other neighboring town, just who does the high school basketball team play against? Isn’t the town too small for a second high school?) Beyond the technical accomplishments regarding the change to colors from black and white, there are clever bits that keep adding to our pleasure: Toby dares to read from Huck Finn and Catcher in the Rye, two of the most celebratedly banned-from-schools novels; the Indian on the TV test pattern behind Don Knotts changes expressions; the recognizable houses from television’s sitcom families; the homages to Patton, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Shawshank Redemption. (Ross said this last one was an unconscious lift.) With Joan Allen, looking more like Pat Nixon than ever, intensifying the caricature of June Cleaver by having orgasms over the discovery of colors; William H. Macy is “Ward”;  Jeff Daniels, Paul Walker as Reese's boyfriend and, resembling George Kennedy, J.T. Walsh in his last variation of his ever-ready menacing bigot. (His premature death from a heart attack is visually presaged.) Allen received five critics’ society citations as best supporting actress. Very possibly the best American movie of its year.

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