If any good movie deserves a sequel, Reese Witherspoon crawling back out of Pleasantville twenty-one years later–The Ring-style, but she doesn’t know the reference–bringing her near adult children in a Stepford Wives nightmare for modern America jaded Tobey Maguire. Call Gary Ross! He’s got that Hunger Games money now! Turn it grey, mush it out, homogenize like a creepy Jell-O mold, Pleasantville is easily my best picture of 1998. Sure, Shakespeare in Love was cute, Saving Private Ryan was…violent, and Life is Beautiful is a movie; the American dream easily unravels in a timeless comedy.
Nominated for best costume design, production design and supporting actress for Joan Allen (all thwarted by the showy Shakespeare in Love), this film seems an underrated comedy, relegated to decades of TBS reruns. Rewatching the film years and years later, two decades after the “screwed-up” America of the 90s, it almost seems the hopeless, superficial period they come from would be a Pleasantville-style experience for 2019 Americans-with-constant-headaches. Drifting back to eerily pleasant world of 1950’s moral family dramas, the sexual revolution Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon’s turn of the century teens have always known breaks through the black-and-white facade of the too-wholesome TV paradise to show the white nationalist underbelly in a town that begins and ends on main street. Age can wreck a story, but this film talks on subjects we are facing head-on right now (the climate change concerns early in the movie make me groan with too good of understanding).
Tobey and Reese are at some of their bests as feuding siblings taken back to “better” times. Tobey finds he can loosen the tight rules his favorite nostalgia moments made him believe were best, and Reese’s wiley, sexually forward bombshell shatters the difference between 50s and 90s America but her innocence lies in more knowledge- than physically-based pleasures. Joan Allen concocted the anti-Stepford moments of the film. When Reese explains to Joan’s character what sex is, she’s so shocked and flummoxed, she needs a damn cookie! It gets even juicier when she discovers alone time in the tub, setting fire to the Puritanical society. Blend in the dumbfounded Jeff Daniels as the local soda shop owner, completely unable to adjust his routine until Maguire unleashes a dormant desire to be an artist, Daniels and Allen discover a different kind of American dream, where the life you are slated to have is far from the reality of modern life. Chasing love and passion can bring color to lives otherwise monotonous, predictable and downright dull. It may seem like the wrong thing to do: reject the American dream and follow your heart; but what really is life without a little flavor? Pleasantville lays bare the fragility of expectation.