Flawed, yet much more intelligent than the majority of films released Stateside during 1998, the directorial debut of screenwriter Gary Ross (Big, Dave) could have been pitched as Back To The Future meets The Truman Show. Or The Wizard Of Oz meets The Twilight Zone. Pleasantville's main strength lies in its concept - - although the idea of people being zapped into a TV show was explored in 1992 comedy Stay Tuned. Undaunted, Ross has lifted elements from various cinematic sources, binding them together into a postmodern fairytale that tackles, albeit clumsily, a wide variety of themes and ideas.
Having pointed out the perils of modern living (no jobs, HIV, etc), Ross' sanitised, suburban nirvana seems like a monochromatic Heaven On Earth. Thus in the squeaky-clean Pleasantville, life is always `swell'. Everybody is white, middle-class and two-dimensional. There's no crime, no one ages and the sun always shines. George Parker (a deliberately clichéd William H Macy) even has his own audience-participation soundbite ('"Honey, I'm home!"') which he cheerfully hollers each night.
But rather than imitating a sitcom, the impact of the movie hangs on the fact that Pleasantville is the scripted, set-dressed world of a TV show: all the books are blank, nothing can burn (the fire brigade only exists to rescue cats from trees) while the roads simply loop back on themselves, going nowhere. It's a community where the wisdom: "'You can't win them all'" is redundant, for in Pleasantville you can; the basketball team have never lost while tenpin bowlers get a strike every time. And because this is a '50s show, with a strict moral code, there's no sex. Hand-holding is the dizzy height of romantic entanglement.
The presence of two '90s kids (Reese Witherspoon and Tobey Maguire) knocks Pleasantville's ordered life from its safely scripted course, bringing splashes of modern colour to the pallid town. Innocent teens discover sex; stay-at-home mom (Joan Allen) learns that women can pleasure themselves; while firemen stare dumbfounded at a blazing tree before putting it out with hoses that they've never had to use. Little by little, the black-and-white town is transformed, embracing a dubious morality which preaches that change is good - even when it means a wife dumping her husband to sleep with the guy (Jeff Daniels) from the malt shop.
Despite being funny and tender, it's a pity Pleasantville the film isn't as perfect as Pleasantville the TV toytown. In trying to encompass too much, the story whips through the themes of freedom of expression, redemption, individuality, racism and the importance of change, hammering them home without ever addressing them fully. And although it's only two hours long, the languid pace of Ross' screenplay makes it feel more like four. Watching Pleasantville is like listening to a bedtime story. At the end, you could easily curl up and fall asleep.
Less subtle than The Truman Show, Pleasantville is still a clever comedy drama which does more than just dump a couple of modern teens into a '50s sitcom. Genuinely witty, only its sluggish pace gut-punches its prospect as a good night out.