The True Colors of 'Pleasantville'

The Left's favorite decade of the twentieth century is, of course, the '60s, which socioculturally ran from JFK's assassination in 1963 to Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974. In those years, politics (We stopped a war, man!), music (Woodstock!), and sex (no italics necessary) were better than they ever were before, and better than they will ever be again.

And the Left's least favorite decade of the century? Worse even than the greedy, Reaganite '80s has to be the blandly conformist, McCarthyite '50s. This period is the setting for the current movie - and last weekend's top box-office draw - "Pleasantville," a satire that's far less witty and observant, and far more simple-minded and smug, than it thinks it is. Writer/director Gary Ross's soft-headed liberalism is unchanged from his last effort, "Dave," but "Pleasantville" is the more pretentious and annoying of the two.

As "Pleasantville" begins, twins Jennifer and David are '90s high-schoolers living with their divorced mother in southern California. Jennifer is promiscuous, with a taste for bad boys. David is a dweeb whose greatest pleasure, seemingly, is watching cable reruns of "Pleasantville," a "Father Knows Best"-like '50s sitcom.

A mysterious television repairman gives Jennifer and David what looks like a super-high-tech remote control but actually is a contraption that zaps them through their TV screen and into Pleasantville, the fictional, completely-black-and-white village where the show is set. Though they don't forget their actual identities, they assume, after a fashion, the series roles of teenaged sister and brother Mary Sue and Bud Parker. I say "after a fashion" because Bud and, especially, Mary Sue proceed to act to a small but crucial extent as the thoroughly modern David and Jennifer would, thereby fundamentally altering Pleasantville and its residents.

Since this movie is a product of '90s Hollywood, its plot, predictably, pivots on sex. During Mary Sue's first date with the school's basketball star, who's so straitlaced that he doesn't even want to hold hands with her so early in the relationship, she abruptly seduces him. After he reports to his teammates on this heretofore unheard-of carnal treat, they too start having sex with their girlfriends. Mary Sue continues to spread erotic wisdom, tutoring her mother in the art of self-gratification; meanwhile, Bud introduces a malt-shop owner/untrained artist to modern painting.

Soon, these unusual behaviors, as well as the appearance of colors here and there, begin to enrage the town elders. The ensuing hysteria results in vandalism of the malt shop (the owner had painted a large nude portrait on the window) and a book-burning (no one in Pleasantville read until David and Jennifer came along; the books in the library at first contain blank pages, which fill in when David and Jennifer tell their new friends what happens in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and other classics). But David/Bud saves the day with a speech at a public meeting, pleading with people not to repress their true selves. In the end, everyone - even the narrow-minded bully of a mayor - is in color. Ah, enlightenment.

It's hard to know where to start pointing out Ross's missteps. If he's going after old-fashioned sitcoms, he's thrashing a straw man. The "Honey, I'm home!" genre was deliberately, unapologetically wholesome; criticizing it for not being "realistic" is like criticizing potato chips for not being sweet. And if he's going after traditional-values conservatives, his caricatured approach to his enemies makes James Carville look subtle by comparison.

Satirizing '50s sitcoms can be fun if it's done in the right way. For example, the amusing '80s book "The Beaver Papers," which fantasized a season of "Leave It to Beaver" written by the likes of Sartre and Dostoevsky, was ultimately a good-natured look at the genre. Over the years, these programs have been the target of countless skits and jokes - but not the butt of them. Ross, however, is ridiculing these shows as a means of attacking the supposedly dull '50s, which, thankfully for the left, were followed by the exciting '60s.

Even those who despise '50s sitcoms acknowledge that there's a large audience to which they still matter, and that they remain popular for their admittedly idealized depiction of a time that many believe was simply better than ours. Members of that audience who see "Pleasantville" will leave the theater dissatisfied.