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Film Review: Pleasantville

Updated on December 22, 2016
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Film reviews from across the cinematic landscape. Written by: Jason Wheeler, Film Frenzy Senior Writer & Editor.


In 1998, Gary Ross released Pleasantville, which starred Tobey Maguire, Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, J. T. Walsh, Reese Witherspoon, Don Knotts, Paul Walker, and Jane Kaczmarek. The film grossed $49.8 million at the box office.


Siblings Jennifer and David are having an argument over who gets to use the big TV in the living room. However, they break the remote and, thanks to a strange TV repairman, wind up trapped in Pleasantville, an old black-and-white show portraying the stereotypical 1950s American suburb.


Pleasantville is an interesting movie, showcasing how the escapism of the perfect world of classic television shows isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, seeing as the world of the show within the film is clearly modeled after the settings of such shows like Leave it to Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show and I Love Lucy. Yet, what the show really is happens to be a shallow parody as those shows weren’t perfect and had problems within their respective continuities. Rather, Pleasantville is meant to be pure escapism, presenting the ideal world for the characters of the film's reality to leave the problems of their world and spend some time there.

Here’s the issue, though. Once Jennifer and David are transported to Pleasantville, they become aware of a whole other set of problems that they would never have had to deal with in the real world. One of the main messages of the film seems to be that the grass may seem greener back then than it does now, but that every generation and every era has its issues to deal with.

Oddly enough, many viewers didn’t seem to get it as it was released during the heat of the Culture Wars in America. The film’s detractors were quick to decry that it was being unfair to the 1950s because it really was a more innocent time and the film’s defenders responded by saying that era was a more horrible time than the late 1990s. These viewers miss the point of the film in that, as stated above, every generation has its problems and the later generation does have more, but also has more solutions, opportunities and freedom. It’s not saying that the 1950s were bad or that they were simple and innocent. It’s saying that the decade had just as much complexities as the present does.

That's where the characters and their development come from. The characters of Pleasantville are initially stuck in the idyllic mentality of the town and that there are no problems. Once Jennifer and David get there, the problems are discovered: there’s nothing beyond the town, the books aren’t real, and no one has ever had to deal with another race before.

When the characters see past the simplicity of it and find the complexity, they develop into characters that resemble actual human beings. The way they’re development is shown is that they turn fully colored. The great part is that people turn colored for different reasons. Some read, some ask questions, David’s mother has a physical awakening while taking a bath.. Human nature is also a factor as there’s plenty of characters that start to get afraid at all the change and find different ways to respond to it. The judge starts segregating normal and colored people and David’s mother puts on makeup to make her appear monochromatic. Nevertheless, that fear about the changes didn’t come into play until someone spoke up about it, that person being the judge, also showing that people are content to pretend that things are simple as long as no one else talks about it. Fascinatingly, after someone does speak up, it turns into mob mentality.

David and Jennifer also go through some good development as well. The former starts the film as a loner using the show as escapism and develops more assertiveness. The latter is a shallow rebel who wants to shake things up and satisfy her physical desires, but she decides to turn over a new leaf, go to college and actually try to make something of herself. This gives her color.

4 stars for Pleasantville

the postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent WNI's positions, strategies or opinions.

Awards won

Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films Saturn Awards

  • Best Supporting Actress (Joan Allen)
  • Best Performance by a Younger Actor/Actress (Tobey Maguire)

Awards Circuit Community Awards

  • Second Place - Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Joan Allen)
  • Second Place - Best Achievement in Art Direction

Boston Society of Film Critics Awards

  • Best Supporting Actress (Joan Allen)
  • Best Supporting Actor (William H. Macy)
  • Second Place - Best Cinematography

Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards

  • Best Supporting Actress (Joan Allen)

Costume Designers Guild Awards

  • Excellence in Costume Design for Film

Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards

  • Best Supporting Actress (Joan Allen)
  • Best Production Design

Online Film & Television Association Awards

  • Best Music, Adapted Song (for the song "Across the Universe")

Online Film Critics Society Awards

  • Best Supporting Actress (Joan Allen)
  • Best Original Score
  • Fourth Place - Top Ten Films of the Year

PGA Awards

  • Nova Award - Most Promising Producer in Theatrical Motion Pictures

Satellite Awards

  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical (Joan Allen)
  • Best Screenplay, Original

Southeastern Film Critics Association Awards

  • Best Supporting Actress (Joan Allen)

Young Hollywood Awards

  • Breakthrough Performance - Female (Reese Witherspoon)

Nominated for

Academy Awards

  • Best Art Direction-Set Decoration
  • Best Costume Design
  • Best Music, Original Dramatic SCore

Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films Saturn Awards

  • Best Fantasy Film
  • Best Writer
  • Best Costumes

American Comedy Awards

  • Funniest Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture (William H. Macy)

Art Directors Guild Awards

  • Excellence in Production Design - Feature Film

Awards Circuit Community Awards

  • Best Cinematography
  • Best Costume Design
  • Best Visual Effects
  • Best Original Score
  • Best Cast Ensemble

Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards

  • Best Picture

Casting Society of America Artios Awards

  • Best Casting for Feature Film, Drama

Chicago Film Critics Association Awards

  • Best Supporting Actress

Chlotrudis Awards

  • Best Supporting Actress (Joan Allen)
  • Best Cinematography

Hugo Awards

  • Best Dramatic Presentation

International Film Music Critics Awards

  • Best Original Score for a Drama Film

Online Film & Television Association Awards

  • Best Music, Original Comedy/Musical Score
  • Best Cinematography
  • Best Makeup and Hairstyling
  • Best Visual Effects

Online Film Critics Society Awards

  • Best Cinematography
  • Best Editing

Golden Satellite Awards

  • Best Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical (Jeff Daniels)
  • Best Director
  • Best Cinematography
  • Best Film Editing
  • Best Art Direction
  • Best Costume Design
  • Best Original Score

Southeastern Film Critics Association Awards

  • Best Picture

Teen Choice Awards

  • Film - Choice Drama
  • Film - Funniest Scene


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