Poor Joan Allen seems to be typecast in her acting career these days as an unhappy housewife. She was the long-suffering Pat Nixon in Oliver Stone's film "Nixon." She was another one in Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm," and now in Gary Ross's new film "Pleasantville" she's stuck as the housewife/mother in a 1950s television sitcom called, what else, "Pleasantville."
Ross, who wrote "Big" and "Dave," has a penchant for the sly stripping of conventional reality. You'll remember that "Big" gave us Tom Hanks as a 12-year-old in a man's body, and that "Dave" gave us a double for the American president.
"Pleasantville" is the story of a nerdy high-school student who finds solace in compulsively watching reruns of a sickly-sweet early sitcom, where the husband says, "Honey, I'm home!" as he comes in the door, where everything is in black and white, and where, as we find out, there's nothing, no existence, beyond Main Street. There's also no sex, no books, not even toilets in the bathrooms.
Through the deus ex machina of Don Knotts as an otherworldly TV repairman, the student -- -played by Tobey Maguire -- and his sister, played by Reese Witherspoon, are transported back into the show itself, and of course turned black and white as well. Joan Allen is their mother, and William H. Macy -- the bumbling husband in "Fargo" -- is dad. At basketball practice, every ball goes in the hoop. Lovers Lane is where kids go to hold hands. Jeff Daniels, who plays the town's soda fountain owner, just makes cheeseburgers and sodas. You get the picture.
And what the movie is about, where Ross wants to take us, is about how placid conformity, a la "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," leads to fascism. In fact he shows a bookburning that is an exact re-creation of the famous photos of the Nazis burning books in 1933, and another of Kristallnacht in 1938.
Naturally, Maguire and Witherspoon, now characters in the show itself, begin to turn the town on its head, opening the people up to such things as art, and sex, and books. One by one, people who open up begin to acquire color. In a nice touch, after Witherspoon has told her mother about the pleasures of masturbation, we see Allen in the bathtub begin to explore her body, and outside a tree suddenly bursts into flame. And then he adds to it when the frantic Maguire rushes into the firehouse to report it, and nobody moves until he shouts "Cat!" which is all the firemen can respond to.
Okay. We get it.
The problem for me is that a TV sitcom isn't quite sturdy enough a peg to hang a whole worldview on, and as the film winds along -- to some great music put together by Randy Newman, by the way -- we find ourselves waiting for it to catch up with us. After a while it just becomes a kind of us versus Ross, whether we or his characters will escape first, kind of game. So while there are some nice moments -- many nice moments -- they don't add up to very much of a movie.