“Pleasantville” refers to a fictional ’50s American town and TV show — rerun, for eternity, on cable — that’s the balm of David (Tobey Maguire), a mournful ’90s teen who watches and re-watches, glassy-eyed, to tune out the pain of his own broken family (divorced Mom and Dad argue bitterly on the phone). David’s twin sister, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), meanwhile, takes the fast-girl route to denial — she’s a slut-in-training.
Fighting over the TV remote control one night, the two receive a visit from a mysterious repairman (Don Knotts) who replaces the clicker with another, a gizmo that throws the kids into “Pleasantville.” Suddenly, David and Jennifer are called Bud and Mary Sue, enrolled in a high school full of classmates who have never gone All the Way or missed a basketball shot. Mom (Joan Allen) wears a dress and a Stepford smile in the kitchen. Dad (William H. Macy) sings out, ”Honey, I’m home!” The world is in black and white.
Jennifer wants to get the heck out immediately. ”We’re in Nerdville!” she complains. But at first David is charmed by the refreshing security of the setup and anxious not to upset the Pleasantville universe with unprogrammed actions. ”Are we in that episode?” he marvels. (“The Ice Storm”‘s Maguire, with his sweet, smart-kid grin, is an excellent marveler.) Still, it’s not long before the twins start tampering with the show’s plotlines, encouraging independent thought, and provoking strange new emotions in townspeople who had never known fire (the local brigade exists to rescue cats from trees) or rain (the wet mystery scares them) or sex. And with each expression of passion, someone or something bursts into telltale color: First a rose. Then an apple. Then lips (the symbolism ain’t subtle). Then a car, a book, a whole person, until most of the town is inflamed — while those dullards angry about change (led by the late J.T. Walsh, in his last role) are stuck in monochrome monotony.
“Pleasantville” is ultramodern and beautiful. But technical elegance and fine performances mask the shallowness of a story as simpleminded as the ’50s TV to which it condescends; certainly it’s got none of the depth, poignance, and brilliance of “The Truman Show,” the recent TV-is-stifling drama that immediately comes to mind.
Writer-director Gary Ross has explored ”magical comedy” before. He wrote “Big,” in which a boy lives in a man’s body, and “Dave,” in which a regular nobody lives in the White House and passes as President of the United States; both those high-concept premises floated on charm. Even higher in concept but mired in banality, this “Pleasantville” most clearly calls to mind another Pleasantville, the real New York town that’s home to Reader’s Digest, purveyor of stories and articles that still look to the ’50s for moral inspiration. In those pages — condensed, of course — this didactic but unenlightening comedy might appear in different form, as a lightweight literary sketch, under the (modified) old Digest banner ”My Most Forgettable Characters.”