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We're not
in Kansas anymore. No, we're in Pleasantville, where life is simple… and, oh yes, in black and white.

Was life in the 1950s as idyllic as many remember? Did you ever wish that you could have Father Knows Best's Jim and Margaret Anderson as your parents? Would that have made you happy? Did you ever ask yourself if the Andersons were really happy?

Screenwriter Gary Ross (Dave) finds exciting answers those questions in Pleasantville, his directorial debut.

The magic of a more-than-meets the eye TV repairman (Don Knotts) channels two 1990s teenage siblings -- geeky David Wagner (Toby Maguire) and popular Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) -- into Pleasantville, a 1950s style sitcom where life is simple, passive, sexless… and colorless.

David longed for the comfort of a Pleasantville life and easily and happily adapts to his new home. But the Stepford-like townspeople appall Jennifer, who resists and mocks their situation. Her resistance propels the movie forward by bringing Pleasantville to life -- and living color.

Because it uses television as a metaphor for modern life, Pleasantville cannot avoid comparisons to The Truman Show. But Pleasantville uses TV to address more political issues than its predecessor.

In The Truman Show, everyone but the main character knew they were playing somebody on TV. In Pleasantville, the characters believe they're real. They're innocents manipulated by a sinister, self-serving power, much as Ross believes U.S. voters are manipulated by politicians who attack the arts and cultural differences in the name of "family values." In Pleasantville, Ross shows us the placid, homogenized, unreal, un-life that awaits us if those politicians succeed.

A superb cast composed of the most successful actors in independent films drives the movie. Maguire and Witherspoon interact like real brother and sister. Maguire brings to the story exactly the right sense of wonderment and wisdom. Witherspoon's range of emotions mirror perfectly her visual changes from color to black-and-white to color once again.

Joan Allen (Ice Storm, The Crucible) and William H. Macy (Fargo) as the television parents lend real pathos to their roles. Joan Allen, in particular, blooms as she begins to experience genuine emotion. J.T. Walsh (Slingblade), in one of his final roles as a town leader, personifies suspicion and fear. And Jeff Daniels (Dumb and Dumber) shines as the soda jerk brought to life by books and art.

Thanks to Jeannine Oppewall's (LA Confidential) production designs, you believe you have been dropped into the 50's -- hair, dress, shops all look as we remember them from real life and on TV. The visual effects are simultaneously subtle and dynamic. The shifts from black-and-white to color amaze without ever overpowering the movie or its characters.

Never heavy-handed, genuinely involving, Pleasantville is well worth the trip. Just make sure you hold on to the remote.

Joan Fuchsman

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