In writer-director Gary Ross' Pleasantville, a teenage boy and his sluttish twin sister are transported – by Don Knotts, wearing a TV repairman's uniform and a crinkly leer – into the boy's favorite '50s television show, a program in heavy rotation on a nostalgia-oriented evening lineup much like Nick at Night. Shot in shadowless black and white, the series is closely modeled after mind-numbing curios such as The Donna Reed Show and Ozzie and Harriet, programs in which all the women are mothers who vacuum the house while dressed in heels, with smiles as blank as their heads. It may be Betty Friedan's nightmare, but for the boy, David (Tobey Maguire), life in Pleasantville is a dream come three-dimensionally true – a kinescope utopia in which parents are always married, and teenage sex is as nonexistent as HIV, MTV and famine.
There's something else missing – color – and herein lies the film's triumph, its gimmick and, eventually, conceptual dead end. Reversing Dorothy's course, David and his twin, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), begin in color, only to enter a circumscribed world of black and white. And not just literally. It's Ross' clever idea that the show-cum-town isn't merely shot in black and white, it's ideologically and philosophically black and white, too – a Manichaean suburb, a Potemkin village, a Rockwellian idyll. What's more, the characters in Pleasantville, its ostensible citizens, don't know what they're missing – the blue of the sky, a hint of sex or a way out of town. They don't even know that they're on TV. They don't know they're not real.
It's a terrific setup, every bit as inventive as that of The Truman Show. Ross doesn't have Peter Weir's cinematic sweep, but he's written a savvier script than Truman's Andrew Niccol did, and invested his directing debut with an admirable sense of proportion. That modesty is evident throughout, but nowhere more obvious than in the special effects, which, for a change, are every bit as spectacular as promised. Pleasantville features more computer-generated effects than any film ever made, but it never feels like a special-effects movie, even when gray bubble gum turns pink and Lovers' Lane blossoms into a stretch of spectral paradise.
David and Jennifer don't just paint the town, they deconstruct it. The first burst of color is an image of a fleshy red rose beaded with dew. One of the town's high school innocents sees the flower right after his first tumble with Jennifer, and it's a shock as suggestive as Hester Prynne's letter, as insinuating as a virgin's ruined bedding. It's a great, tingly moment; if only the rest of the film were as thrilling. In short order, the twins wreak enough havoc on the back lot – as with the Beats, salvation lies in sex, art and the road – that the TV town starts to look less like Father Knows Best and a lot more like a Douglas Sirk melodrama, or at least Peyton Place, with teen lust and adult affairs blooming against a desperately pallid backdrop. But while it's David and Jennifer who change Pleasantville, it's Joan Allen and William H. Macy who, as the twins' television parents, Betty and George, bring it depth.
It's a difficult trick to give feelings to characters not meant to be fully realized, but Allen and Macy pull it off beautifully. As color seeps into Betty's life, Allen's face seems to alter on some deeper, chromosomal level. When her gray mask is lifted, it's not just washed with peach, it's transformed into a landscape of emotion. Macy, whose character doesn't metamorphose as quickly, has the tougher job of turning a caricature into something recognizably human. Allen gets to run an all-important bath and nearly steal the movie, but it's Macy who, in repeating the words “Honey, I'm home,” imbues a scene with existential dread. If the rest of the film doesn't live up to either that scene or Allen's and Macy's performances, it's partly because Ross is still finding his way as a director – Pleasantville charms but rarely soars – and because his politics are finally as cautious as his aesthetics.
The moral of Pleasantville may be that change is good, but only so much change, only certain kinds. Just when it seems that most interesting American directors have embraced the new nihilism, leaving politics to hysterics like Oliver Stone and pedagogues like John Sayles, it's almost a shock to encounter a film with such solid, humanistic values. It's too bad, then, that Ross feels the need to suppress his more radical instincts. While he plays the good feminist when it comes to Betty, Jennifer freaks him out. There's something squeamish in his conception of her as both shallow and promiscuous, as if the two were mutually dependent. Jennifer needs a lesson in self-love, and to crack open a few books, but does she have to dump Eros altogether? Instead of giving her options – a girlfriend, say, or a vibrator – Ross has the character sublimate in the worst way: The more she reads, the less sex she wants. He denies the daughter what he grants her mother – a mind and a body. For Ross, the revolution will be colorized – but just not outside the lines.