Two ’90s teenagers catapulted into a ’50s sitcom world have a dramatic effect on their new surroundings.
Any plot involving people trapped inside a wholesome TV sitcom will inevitably invite comparisons to The Truman Show. However, the small-screen setting is where all similarity ends, for Pleasantville, while not quite scaling the outstanding heights of Truman Burbank's moment in the limelight, is smart and funny enough to be taken on its own terms.
Maguire and Witherspoon are David and Jen, the adolescents in question, poles apart despite being twins. She is a sluttish, chain-smoking flirt. He is a clean-cut borderline geek who fancies himself as world authority on Pleasantville, a black-and-white ’50s sitcom in which dinner is never late, toilets don't exist and marital beds are strictly single. The pair are forced to bond, however, when a new remote control zaps them into the telly right in the middle of a Pleasantville episode, and into the roles of squeaky-clean teens Bud and Mary Sue. Initially perturbed by their new-found "pastiness", to say nothing of their saccharine sitcom parents (Allen and Macy), their '90s attitudes soon bring profound changes to the sleepy 'burb, gradually transforming the monochromatic residents into gloriously oversaturated Technicolor.
Director Gary Ross, whose screenplays for Big and Dave both won him Oscar nominations, makes a highly accomplished, beautiful looking directorial debut. He also draws excellent performances from his entire cast, especially Allen, Macy, Daniels (as a diner owner/frustrated artist), and the late, lamented J.T. Walsh (as the town's bigoted mayor). However, it's the screenplay that wins the day, crammed with so much inventiveness and charm that a third stab at the golden statuette must surely be on the cards.
In fact, there are so many comic highlights here (the near-perfect basketball team, Allen's pyrotechnic sexual awakening, a fire brigade trained only to rescue cats stuck up trees, the suggestion that back home the TV viewing public is watching every moment), that when the tone shifts toward the dramatic, and the town's elders begin denouncing the "coloured" interlopers, it threatens to over-dramatise its own fantastic conceit. The lengthy, sentimental interlude which follows sits uneasily with the rest of the picture, but Ross' directorial control is so assured he manages to rein the action back in for a positively exhilarating finale.
A film which proves Hollywood is still capable of turning out comedies that are as intelligent and original as they are feelgood.