Pleasantville ★★★★★

Who needs "WandaVision" when you have this.

This movie has always been an ocean of beauty to me, the things I love about art and entertainment and how they interact pouring effusively over me in tidal waves. It's just about the farthest one can be from subtle, but its messages, evocations and imagery are enormously striking within this seemingly cute and harmless fantasy-comedy gimmick that it starts out on, so who needs understatement? In addressing social reform, civil rights, the sexual revolution, biblical allegory, existentialism, the importance and evolution of art, and the magic of cinema itself, in a way it feels like the entirety of this medium bottled within a single film. The territory it traverses could fill a legendary filmmaker's whole career of work. I'm not saying it necessarily imagines these topics as well as any great film ever has, but its ambition to expand up into all of them is an extraordinary process to experience as the movie goes on.

The first 15 minutes are very unassuming; looks like a trite teen comedy. You have no idea what you're in for. How can a movie cast Don Knotts to wink at his own legacy one minute and then stir up profound epiphanies about the wonders of life in the next? But this is all about discovery - of potential, of freedom, of new ideas, of other ways to live, of personal expression, of unexplored options, of the places where the roads keep going...movies like "Pleasantville" are priceless primers on what an amazingly engaging world it is that we live in. Notice it and savor it and make it better.

Naming Randy Newman for his transcendent theme and John Lindley for his gorgeous cinematography barely scratches the surface of everyone who made this so special. Gary Ross of course as writer and director - what happened to this guy afterward? After writing "Dave" and creating this, he seemed poised to become a champion filmmaker for the ages, but instead he goes on to do generic "Seabiscuit", that first wobbly "Hunger Games" and a forgettable "Ocean's" spin-off. There was no sufficient way to follow this up, I reckon. It's too much concentrated vision and thematic exploration. But anyway the production designers for "Pleasantville" are heroes unto themselves, constructing a prim '50s sitcom landscape under fake black-and-white and then melting it down little by little with magnificent splashes of color in the most symbolically inventive ways (love that tree catching on fire during Joan Allen's climax). There's a generous texture you feel on screen during patient shots of fragile faces and crucial objects. I want to run my hand over William H. Macy's impeccably trimmed pompadour, and blush at the soft sensation of Tobey Maguire adding black and white makeup back on to Joan Allen's cheeks. Numerous homages to movie history are peppered in to the natural order to events - like Andy out in the rain in "The Shawshank Redemption" and the courtroom in "To Kill a Mockingbird" just for starters.

The actors are uncannily well chosen. Macy playing a man whose veneer of anonymous normalcy crumbles heartbreakingly is that thing he was so great at in '90s classics like "Fargo" and "Magnolia", while Joan Allen spent her '90s peerlessly essaying the challenges of being a wife or just any kind of strong woman within a male-dominated world (that's the crux of her work in "Nixon", "The Crucible", "Face/Off", "The Ice Storm", and "The Contender"). Reese Witherspoon by this point had already made an impression in "Fear" and "Freeway" but this is where her true movie star superpowers finally came into focus. She owns every shot she's in. By contrast this was a curtain call for J.T. Walsh, who passed away before it was released; a Hall of Fame character actor, his villainy was always searingly loathsome and rooted insidiously inside the relatable fears and weaknesses of human nature.

But who I want to praise most are Jeff Daniels, Tobey Maguire, and even Paul Walker in a smaller part, because these are three guys who are factory-made for the style of artificial wholesomeness that this old TV show they're in represents. They each have that wide-eyed aw-shucks innocence. Daniels plays it almost literally like a man-child, and in the bashful humility of his steps toward awakening, the movie's heart beats loud. Maguire's face is stuffed with feeling that wants to burst, like he's always that shot of a character in a Spielberg movie who's looking in astonishment at something incredible off-screen. That's just how he looks normally, it seems, in other movies too. How smart to get him for this movie as the audience surrogate who's enamored of this TV show and ecstatic to spend time inside it and then inspired to see it bloom and grow? That face sells the movie's enchanting spell every step of the way.

Finally, just wanted to shout out the scene where Maguire drives his girlfriend Marley Shelton in a convertible through the park on a lovely afternoon. The world is still mostly black and white but pink rose petals shower down on them as they enter this scene in slow motion to "At Last" by Etta James, as if afloat in some perfect dream. It's one of my favorite 30 seconds of any movie I've ever seen. It looks amazing in a way that no movie ever has and represents some sense of unobtainable emotional purity, an impossible co-existence of romanticized old-fashioned aesthetic and progressive change, like the one time we could enjoy them both in harmony and feel bliss in all directions, or something. I worship at the pedestal of this moment.

"Pleasantville" shared real estate in 1998 with other films of astonishing visual experimentation on a studio dime like "What Dreams May Come" as well as another more famous deconstruction of life through television, "The Truman Show", but I find it to be the most adventurous and rich in theme. In slightly different circumstances it totally would have swept an Oscar season, but I'm glad it didn't because then we'd be scrutinizing its flaws foreverafter. And on a personal note, one of its codas has newfound added resonance for me; when Maguire is sitting with his mom Jane Kaczmarek at the table and they have this exchange:

"I'm 40, it's not supposed to be like this."
"It's not supposed to be like anything."

Here I am coming upon 40 later this year and feeling that same anxiety. I've adored this movie since I first saw it at the age of 16 and understood the wisdom of that scene, but now I directly feel it too, so talk about the gift that keeps on giving. You are one of the brightest colors in my palette, "Pleasantville". Thank you so much.

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