New Line // 1998 // 124 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // February 2nd, 2011
Nothing is as simple as black and white.
Writer/director Gary Ross's film Pleasantville didn't make much of a splash when it was released back in 1998, probably because mainstream audiences weren't all that interest in a sociological fantasy that trafficked mostly in 1950s pop culture. It has lived on, however, in countless reruns on basic cable and has finally found something of a well-deserved fanbase. Now, the film is getting a Blu-ray release that offers first-rate visuals and second-rate everything else.
Twin siblings David (Tobey Maguire, Brothers) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line) couldn't be more different: she smokes and curses and spends her time sleeping around, while David is more of a social outcast. He's happiest living (figuratively) inside the world of his favorite TV show: the 1950s family sitcom Pleasantville. When a strange repairman (Don Knotts) shows up during an argument between David and Jenny and offers them a special remote control, they're sucked into the TV and find themselves living (literally) inside Pleasantville.
While David uses his encyclopedic knowledge of the show to get through the day to day, Jennifer must learn to navigate a world that's totally different than the one she knows: everything is perfect and no one questions anything. The twins' new mom, Betty (Joan Allen, The Upside of Anger), is the perfect homemaker, and their dad, George (William H. Macy, The Cooler) is the standard sitcom dad. Before long, though, Jennifer starts to shake things up: she introduces one of the boys to sex, and his world magically changes to color. It begins to spread, always changing from black and white to color; before you know it the whole town is listening to rock music and learning about art and literature and even asking the question no one has asked before: what's outside of Pleasantville?
I'll gladly go on record as saying that Gary Ross's Pleasantville is one of the most underrated movies of the 1990s. I say this, of course, fully recognizing that the movie taps into my love of 1950s pop culture and the manufactured idea of innocence that we've all silently agreed upon in the decades since. That doesn't mean that Pleasantville isn't a beautiful movie, one that's clever and original and entertaining while still managing to have ideas and be about something.
Yes, a good deal of Pleasantville is about as subtle as an episode of Leave it to Beaver, particularly in the second half when the film really gets into "message" mode. And, yet, I give it something of a pass (perhaps because I'm a fan, though I'd like to believe otherwise) because the messages are fairly transgressive. I don't think it was particularly fashionable in 1998 (or anytime post-Reagan) to suggest that America in the 1950s wasn't quite as picturesque and perfect as we choose to remember it through our pop culture filter. In 2011, such a statement is practically unheard of, and yet much of what Pleasantville has to say needs to be heard by some conservative commentators and the staff over at FOX News. Things didn't always used to be better. Yes, things have changed in the last five decades, in many ways for the worse. In many ways, though, it's been for the better, and I appreciate that Pleasantville is willing to say it. But the movie isn't only specific to its time period or setting -- it's about freedom of choice and thought in any time, and the way that once an idea takes hold there's not stopping it. That it's told with such a clever conceit -- a black and white world that changes to color as these ideas spread -- is just icing on the cake.
Tobey Maguire is appropriately wide-eyed and sweet at the movie's center, and Reese Witherspoon is surprisingly good because Pleasantville was made in the '90s, a decade in which she was still doing good work in interesting movies. It's the grown-up cast, though -- William H. Macy, Jeff Daniels and (especially) Joan Allen -- that give Pleasantville its soul. Because of the nature of their characters, the actors are called upon to do so much with so little; all of their emotions exist beneath the surface and remain there, but gradually we're let in on what's happening inside all of these people. Not through big, dramatic scenes or outpourings, mind you, but through subtle, effective acting. It's what grown ups do. The supporting cast is equally good, featuring a host of great character actors (the late J.T. Walsh [who utters the movie's best line: "Thank goodness we're in a bowling alley."] and Don Knotts), as well as several now-recognizable faces: Paul Walker, Marley Shelton and a blink-and-you'll-miss-her cameo from teen actress-turned-musician Jenny Lewis. I knew there was a reason I loved Pleasantville.
Though New Line has done a good job with this Blu-ray of Pleasantville, it's yet another example of an HD release that upgrades only the video and audio and offers nothing new to fans who own the original "Platinum Series" DVD. The 1.85:1 1080p image starts off a bit rough, but that's by design; watching the film in HD, for the first time I realized just how grungy those early, present-day scenes look (again, this is intentional so that it better contrasts with the black and white "TV" stuff). Once the characters enter the TV landscape, though, it's a bit like watching The Wizard of Oz in reverse: black and white offers a whole new world, visually speaking. The image is sharp and well-detailed, and the contrast is gorgeous. It's a beautiful image. The lossless DTS audio track isn't asked to do a whole lot but performs well, balancing the dialogue with Randy Newman's lovely score in a way that's not distracting. For a movie like this, that's most of what you can ask for.
But then there are the special features. The "Platinum Series" DVD released in 1999 had some good bonus content, and that's been carried over to the Blu-ray. Unfortunately, as has too often been the case with New Line's HD releases, those are the only special features to be found. Gary Ross provides a thoughtful (if subdued) commentary track, covering the production and some the choices he made. It's pretty much only for fans of the movie, but they'll likely be well-rewarded. A second commentary features composer Randy Newman, who speaks only between pieces of the isolate score. I thought this would grow tiresome quickly, but was surprised when I found myself making it all the way through the film this way; the score is good enough and Newman's musings interesting enough to hold interest for the full two hours. A short, pretty standard "making of" featurette is included, as is the movie's original theatrical trailer. The real gem of the supplemental section, though, is a terrific video for Fiona Apple's cover of The Beatles' "Across the Universe" directed by her then-boyfriend Paul Thomas Anderson. If you've never seen it, check it out. It's awesome.
It's too bad that New Line keeps essentially repurposing their existing DVD releases when they put out Blu-rays. It makes it pretty difficult for me to recommend upgrading your standard def copies of their films. Yes, Pleasantville looks better than it ever has, but that may not be reason enough to shell out another $15 or $20 when you're just getting the same thing as what you already own. If you're as big a fan of the movie as I am, it may make sense. Casual fans, however, are better off hanging on to their DVDs and investing that money in a Blu-ray with some new bonus content.
Oh well. I will continue to love Pleasantville, and I'm confident that this Blu-ray will be in heavy rotation in my player for years to come. It's a unique movie. A special movie. That should be celebrated.
Review content copyright © 2011 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Music Video