Gary Ross, the writer of Big and Dave, has just made his directorial debut with Pleasantville. The film has been highly tauted by the critics and it seems that Ross not only made the move to director successfully, he's also courageously leaped out of monosyllabic titles.
Jack Kroll of Newsweek said that the film was "a complex entertaining film that has real ideas." Janet Maslin of The New York Times calls it "an ingenious fantasy," and Jay Carr of The Boston Globe says "Here, finally it seems, is atruly sophisticated and thought-provoking film ...it is simply brilliant! Film itself is being reborn." Finally, Richard Collins of Time says that the film is "smart, fun, epic-sized entertainment."
What's interesting and noteworthy about these particular reviews is the stress they all put on what they perceive as the impressive amount of intelligence behind the film. This is the movie we've all been waiting for. Certainly no one will contend with the notion that, with very slight exception, every film that rolls out of the big Hollywood studios these days is about as sophisticated and thought-provoking as a piece of dog poo. But for the American public, here at last is a film with "real ideas"- or so they say.
In Pleasantville Tobey Maguire (The Ice Storm, Deconstructing Harry and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and Reese Witherspoon (Freeway) play fraternal twins who get sucked into a 1950s television show and, as one can probably guess, the wackiness ensues. This is not mere wackiness however; it is pointed wackiness.
The world which the twins inhabit in the beginning of the film is our own: there is AIDS and global warning, and jobs are scarce. We are reminded of all of this in the beginning of the film as these notions get drilled into the heads of students in their various high school classes. Sure makes one long for the idyllic days of '50s television, doesn't it?
The introduction of the film also allows the viewer an insight into the two main characters' problems: Maguire's character watches too much TV and Witherspoon's is a big slut.
After they're sucked into the TV and forced to live in a '50s television show, both of them (not surprisingly) learn a little about themselves and about their world from living in a '50s sitcom; consequently, they come out of the experience as better people.
What isn't exactly clear is what we as audience members are supposed to have learned from this experience. It is easy to criticize '50s television characters, but no one ever considered those shows to represent reality. Even in the '50s people knew their lives weren't being accurately represented on television.
The contrast Pleasantville creates between the two worlds doesn't work. Certainly the fictional characters in '50s television were ridiculously sanitized. But what does that have to do with the fact that people watch too much TV, are big sluts, and that AIDS is everywhere?
So maybe not every film must have some sort of deep, penetrating message. Pleasantville, however, clearly sets itself up as a film with something to say, then doesn't deliver. The movie might actually have worked if it had concerned itself with being funny and cute. As it stands, it is neither. Stay away.
On the other end of the spectrum is Todd Solondz's new film Happiness. Happiness tells the story of three sisters and their extended family who get mixed up in all kinds of wacky adventures, ranging from obscene phone calls to raping young children.
The film is brutal and it revels in that. Solondz, whose first film Welcome to the Dollhouse was funny and sick and made a hero out of the most unlikely of characters, has gone overboard.
Happiness is two hours and 20 minutes of gratuitous depravity. At its best it almost manages the kind of uncomfortable humor that worked so well in Welcome to the Dollhouse and even at times demonstrates a truly touching sweetness between these characters. Unfortunately these moments are few and very far between.
Ironically, Happiness suffers from the same problem as Pleasantville. Instead of subtly examining depravity and its implications, it goes so over the top for shock purposes that it stops relating to the real world at all. It seems clear that Solondz is trying to be in your face and confrontational - in effect he's saying, "Look at this! This is you"- but because he goes so far over the line the film ceases to be implicating and loses its power.
This world is no more real than the world of '50s television. There is plenty wrong with the world in which that we now live; it would be nice if a filmmaker actually explored it.
Copyright © 1998, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 8, November 6, 1998
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