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Friday, June 4, 1999

Somewhere over the airwaves

Once upon a time, back in the '50s, there existed a "better" America, a wholesome utopia of crew cuts, unquestioning white-bread conformity and mom in the kitchen baking apple pies.

That this never-never land didn't really exist outside of TV programs like "Father Knows Best" or "The Donna Reed Show" doesn't seem toregister in the minds of cantankerous Republican oldsters. The nuclear family and safe, white-picket fence suburbs are remembered fondly, while blacklisting and racial segregation are conveniently forgotten in this Reaganesque triumph of fantasy over reality.

Here to induce a reality check, and make the point that there's no turning the clock back as if the past three decades never happened, is screenwriter-turned-director Gary Ross ("Dave," "Big"). "Pleasantville," the amusing directorial debut of this former Clinton soundbite-writer, sets up this TV-induced conservative ideal of American family life -- complete with libido-less teens and people who actually say "Swell!" -- and proceeds to utterly take the piss out of it.

David and Jennifer (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) are a pair of wised-up '90s teens, growing up in a single-parent family. Jennifer's a typical pop tart, jockeying for position in the in-crowd, and making moves on the buffest jock; David is more withdrawn and spends too much time in front of the tube -- in particular, a security-blanket sitcom named "Pleasantville," which is perpetually on rerun. "A flashback to kinder, gentler times," as it's knowingly billed.

In a sort of "Wizard of Oz" in reverse, David and Jennifer are sucked through a vortex in their TV, thanks to a magical TV repairman (a bizarre cameo by, of all people, Don Knotts). Leaving behind their colorful, anarchic '90s world, they enter the boring, black-and-white faux-'50s community of Pleasantville, where they assume the personalities of Bud and Mary Lou, the goodie-two-shoes siblings in the sitcom.

Mr. TV-Repairman thinks he has done the two a huge favor, by putting them into this perfect world, but the teens are less enthusiastic. As Jennifer files into school with her fellow cooing bobby-soxers under a streaming American flag, she can only moan despairingly, "We're, like, stuck in nerdsville."

The first half of the film is an extremely witty send-up of the genre conventions of early TV sitcoms from the '50s: It never rains, the school team never loses, Mom and Dad are always cheery and sleep in twin beds, the fire department rescues kittens from trees and nobody goes to the bathroom. Like "The Truman Show," "Pleasantville" derives a lot of laughs from how its residents seem unaware of their absurdly narrow TV existence: High-school geography class doesn't seem to ever get past Main Street.

David, who knows every "Pleasantville" episode by heart, can play by the "rules" -- in fact, he can cope better in this world than the real one. But bad-girl Jennifer, the Eve in this garden of Eden, brings knowledge of the forbidden fruit to her boyfriend Skip in the back seat of a Cadillac up on Lover's Lane.

This being a determinedly liberal, secular humanist film, this carnal awakening represents not a fall from grace, but rather, the birth of passion and creative chaos in this rigid, airless community. Illustrating this idea is a fantastic visual trick: As the youth of Pleasantville begin to flock to Lover's Lane and learn of sex, they blossom into color in this black-and-white world. This leads to some magical imagery, like when Bud and his girlfriend drive a car through a monochrome forest road under a rain of pink cherry blossoms.

As more of Pleasantville's citizenry become "colored," the beefy mayor and other angry black-and-white males decide to "save" their community from this bad outside influence. When they ban rock 'n' roll and start burning books, the metaphor gets more than a little heavy-handed and strained. It's rather disingenuous, too, in how it seeks to tackle the civil rights issue in a 100 percent Caucasian context, as David and Jennifer are made out to be the "rock 'n' roll niggers" (as Patti Smith would put it). The film is mature enough to admit, though, that all change is a mixed blessing: with passion comes violence; with romance, affairs; with options, choice.

Any film this funny can be excused for its excesses, though. The casting is ridiculously spot-on, especially William H. Macy ("Fargo") and Joan Allen ("The Ice Storm") as the sitcom parents. Macy's rubbery grin is just perfect in that too-genki way as he shouts, "Honey! I'm home!," and Allen's look of consternation as she asks her daughter "What's 'sex'?" is priceless. Even Jeff Daniels can do no wrong here, as a dim-witted soda jerk who takes up Cubist painting.

While "Pleasantville" is, on the one hand, a funny magic-realist fable, a cynical '90s refashioning of "Back to the Future" for the rerun generation, it's also the latest salvo in the on-going American culture wars. Sundry Republican politicos (no doubt noticing that the flow of Hollywood donations was largely going into Democratic coffers) have fired a few missiles at the industry, accusing it of promoting America's decline into degeneracy.

With "Pleasantville," Hollywood has fired back its own warning shot. The Republicans would be wise to run for cover: When it comes to image wars, as "Wag the Dog" highlighted, the film industry eats the politicians for breakfast and spits out their bones.

"Pleasantville" is playing at Shinjuku Masashino-kan and other theaters.

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