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. 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. Keep watching: Ross pulls out of the goo, infusing a 90s sensibility into the wretched and very hazardous suburban Eisenhower era to make a challenging if much less erudite version of Gabriel García Márquez: Pleasantville is an 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 black & white; 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 too much virulent anti-Commie nonsense but with all its deadening conformity and offshoots: fascism, the double barrel of “No Coloreds Allowed,” the idiocies of the GQP. I don’t know if we’re supposed to compare Ross to one of the world’s greatest writers but it hardly matters: the more we contemplate Pleasantville, the more valid the connection; this movie is more García Márquez in spirit, audacious enchantment and political warning than any movie version of his works. The principal casting is just right: Time travelers Toby Maguire and sister Reese Witherspoon (in an infectiously fun performance) change Pleasantville into corrective chaos. There’s at least one question without an answer: 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 of b & w to colors, there are clever bits added for our pleasure: Toby dares to read from Huck Finn and Catcher in the Rye, two of the most celebratedly banned-from-schools novels; Reese educating about the second function of the phallus; 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 (its courtroom setting) 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 aand receiving five critics’ society citations as best supporting actress; William H. Macy is her husband Ward; Jeff Daniels, Paul Walker as Reese’s boyfriend and, resembling George Kennedy, J.T. Walsh in his final variation of his ever-ready menacing bigot and his list of dictums scarily prescient. (Walsh’s premature death from a heart attack is facially presaged.) Very possibly the best American movie of its year.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER  (Revised 10/2021)  All Rights Reserved.