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Film: Pleasantville

"There are some places that the road doesn't go in a circle. There are some places where the road keeps going."
David

A deliberately troperrific 1998 movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Tobey Maguire. Main characters Jennifer and David are a pair of siblings who, during an argument over who gets to use the big TV in the living room, wind up Trapped in TV Land due to a strange TV repairman and a stranger magical remote. Specifically, they wind up in Pleasantville, an old black-and-white show portraying the stereotypical 1950s American suburb (along the lines of Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best, but even more idealistic). David is thrilled because it's his favorite show; it is a happy world where nothing bad ever happens (as a contrast to David and Jennifer's unstable home life). Jennifer, being more of a party girl, finds Pleasantville incredibly dull and wants to liven the place up. Still, they both want to get home, and David wants to do so without upsetting the community — but the repairman gets antsy and they're stuck.

Their presence winds up throwing the heavily-idealized world into chaos. As things become less idealized and more like the real world, they begin to show up in color instead of black and white — people cease to be monochrome whenever they stop staying nice and snug within their boundaries and break out, displaying some inner truth about their character.

For an oddly similar experience in book form, try The Giver.


This movie provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Ascended Fanboy: David becomes Bud which he loves at first.
  • Bland-Name Product: TVTime for TVLand.
  • Blank Book: The entire library in Pleasantville is completely blank — nobody ever read on the show, after all.
  • Blithe Spirit: The entire point of the kids' visit, which winds up changing everything in the town.
  • Book Burning: Still-grey people burn books which appeared in the library because they saw it as sign of corruption and end of their happy, non-complicated existence.
  • Brick Joke: David helping put out a fire is a hilarious example. First of all the movie establishes that all the firemen in town ever do is getting cats down from trees. Later, a tree bursts into flame. David catches wind of it and runs to the nearest fire station. Of course, there's never been an actual fire in Pleasantville until now:
    David: Fire! (Confused firemen stare at him.) FIRE!!! (They still stare.)... Cat? (They rush to the scene.)
    (Later)
    Fireman watching the tree burn: Where's the cat?
  • Cat Up a Tree: The only thing the firemen do at first is rescuing cats from trees. There are no fire or emergencies in the idyllic world of Pleasantville.
  • Character Development: David starts out the film as an introverted loner who thinks of the show as escapism. Halfway through the film, he begins to display more assertive leader traits and earns his color by punching out a thug who was attacking his TV mom. Likewise, Jennifer starts as a shallow, slutty fashionista whose original intent is to shake things up, but when given a fresh start, she realizes the value of education and earns her color by breaking a date to study.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Bill's painting ability. He and David paint a huge grafitti to provoke still-grey people into action. Ensuing process sparks the colour in all of them.
  • The Chew Toy: The rival basketball team. After all, their sole purpose for existing is to lose to the Pleasantville team.
  • Coming of Age Story: When people of all age ranges step outside their formula lifestyle, symbolized by the transition to color. The whole film is an allegory for Character Development and almost chronicles the rise of the teenager, The Fifties coming of age as a decade if you will.
  • Crapsaccharine World: Plesantville gradually reveals itself to be one. It looks bright and sunny (as bright as black and white can be) but everyone is either deeply repressed, very bigoted or in Bill's case, going through an existential crisis.
  • Culture Police: Utilized as the presence of two kids from the real world starts making a small town from a sitcom set in an idealized version of The Fifties more and more real. One particularly non-subtle scene visually features an angry mob breaking into a store and tearing paintings apart — then moving on to burn books. The town establishes a Code of Conduct prohibiting all recorded music except "Pat Boone, Johnny Mathis, Perry Como, Jack Jones, the marches of John Philip Sousa or 'The Star Spangled Banner'."
  • Cut-and-Paste Suburb: The entire town of Pleasantville, with a generic city hall, one instance of each of a soda shop, a hat store, a general store, a clothing store, a fire station, a high school, a library, and a designated Lovers Lane.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: Betty the housewife after getting the sex talk from her "daughter" Mary Sue/Jennifer. This is so out of character and against the ways of Pleasantville's reality, it sets a tree in front of the house on fire.
  • Dead TV Remote Gag: David and Jennifer break their remote and are too lazy to change the channel by using the controls on the TV, leading the magic TV repairman to come to the door and give them a new remote that sends the siblings to Pleasantville, kick-starting the plot. Lampshaded by Jennifer, only for David to remark that the TV set is new enough that it doesn't work without a remote.
  • Deconstructive Parody: Of 50's sitcoms and nostalgia for the era.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Lampshaded when Jennifer points out how absurd the concept of being in a TV show from the 1950s is:
    Jennifer: And I still don't see why we're doing this!
    David: Because we're supposed to be in school.
    Jennifer: We're supposed to be at home, David. We're supposed to be in COLOR!
  • Descriptiveville: The town is an actual 1950's sitcom town. It is, indeed, quite pleasant.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?:
    • Not that the movie's subtle about its parallels with a cultural revolution. The signs discriminating against non-monochrome people even read "No Coloreds".
    • The scene where Bud and his girlfriend are in Lover's Lane. She tempts him into eating a red apple. Now what biblical story involves eating a certain Forbidden Fruit?
    • The still-grey people of Pleasantville burning books.
  • Double Standard: Rape, Female on Male: Jennifer goes on a date with the town jock, who she quickly manipulates into having sex with her. This is Played for Laughs, though at the time, the boy had no idea what sex was (or for that matter, STD's or even pregnancy), was visibly freaked out, and even mistook his erection for an "illness." Had the sexes been reversed, the boy would have been vilified.
  • Dysfunction Junction: Two bickering siblings go into a 50's sitcom, where it's slowly revealed that all the characters are either repressed one way or another, or deeply bigoted.
  • Dystopia: How Pleasantville appears to really be.
  • Fantastic Racism: Newly colorized people are referred to as "coloreds", the same term commonly used in states in the United States where segregation occurred.
  • Feminine Women Can Cook:
    • Betty Parker takes care of her family and it's demonstrated by making extremely lavish breakfasts and dinners. At the end of the movie, she makes David promise he will eat wholesome.
    • Margate, a gorgeous cheerleader baked cookies for her Love Interest. Originally, it was Whitey, but she's charmed with David. She gives him cookies and it kicks off their romance.
  • Fisher Kingdom: When David and Jennifer first enter the TV show, they're turned monochrome and adopt the clothing of the world around them, and take on the roles of pre-existing characters, complete with friends and histories. As far as everyone else is concerned, they've been there all along.
  • Genre Savvy: David, due to Pleasantville being his favorite show.
  • Genre Shift: The movie starts out as a straight Trapped in TV Land comedy, but then becomes something more weighty when the changes in the town have more serious ramifications.
  • Homage:
    • The set in the courtroom scene, and the segregation of the "colored" characters is very similar to To Kill a Mockingbird.
    • David's reaction the first time it rains in Pleasantville is almost identical to a shot in The Shawshank Redemption. However, this is unintentional according to Word of God, who said that he didn't realize he did "the Shawshank shot" until a friend pointed it out when it was released.
  • Happy Rain: David is joyous when it starts raining for the first time ever in Pleasantville. Other colored teens and Betty with Bill love it also.
  • Held Gaze: Betty and Bill when the latter comes to the Parkers' house. David awkwardly has to break it up.
  • I Choose to Stay: Jennifer decides to stay as she reasons with how badly she was failing back in reality, there is no way she could get into a good college.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Jennifer was originally a very selfish snob, and her decision to shake up the world is for less-than-noble reasons. However, even David comes to realize that his sister has a point.
  • Kubrick Stare: George has one at the bowling alley after he came to the house while Betty decides to leave George, it's raining in Pleasantville for the first time, and there's no dinner.
  • Lampshade Hanging: David is very genre savvy, and constantly points out tropes as they happen in-universe (but not for the movie as a whole). He even tries to warn his sister against defying tropes.
  • Letting Her Hair Down: Inverted by Mary Sue/Jennifer. She originally wears her hair loose but as she discovers the joy of reading and becomes studious, she wears her hair up or tied in a high ponytail.
  • Love Epiphany: David gets George to realize exactly why he misses Betty, and it's not for the cooking and cleaning she does.
  • Love It or Hate It: This was one of the more controversial films of 1998, becoming something of a skirmish in the "culture war" that was raging in America at the time due to (among other things) President Bill Clinton's sexual dalliances and the increasing coarsening and edginess of American television, movies, and music (South Park, Eminem, etc.). Defenders of the film insisted that the 1950s were a horrible time, while detractors declared that they were a simpler, "innocent" time. Of course, both interpretations are inaccurate.
  • Love Triangle: Part of Betty's awakening is cheating on her husband with the guy who owns the malt shop. (One of the odder moments in the film, as Betty has a pregnant "moment" with Bill when they first meet that comes out of nowhere.)
  • Mary Sue: Invoked in the form of the perfect, sweet sister character named Mary Sue — although once Jennifer assumes her role, this quickly ends.
  • Meaningful Name: What's the name of the sweet, perfect girl in Pleasantville? Mary Sue.
  • Monochrome Casting: Justified in that 50s sitcoms were in fact lily-white.
  • Nobody Poops: There aren't any toilets. When inspected, the stalls turn out to be empty.
  • Nostalgia Ain't Like It Used To Be: Parodied and ultimately subverted; the world of the show is initially the rosy idea of The Fifties that everyone loves to reminisce about, but once the "colour infection" starts to spread, the uglier side of the decade (such as "racial" and gender discrimination) is gradually reflected.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted. In the TV series, both the mother and one of Mary Sue's friends are named "Betty".
  • Romantic Rain: It starts raining on David and Margaret's date.
  • Rule of Symbolism: The movie makes an Adam and Eve allusion twice the first time when Jennifer sleeps with Slip, setting into motion Pleasantville becoming more "realistic." The second time is less subtle, with Margaret giving an apple to David.
  • Screw Destiny: David's view is initially to follow the plots of the show by heart, but he eventually comes to embrace this trope.
  • Sexless Marriage: All of the marriages in Pleasantville, at least until the protagonists start shaking things up.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: The world of Pleasantville starts out with the dial pegged on Idealism, and steadily moves it over to Realism.
  • So What Do We Do Now?: The end of the movie:
    George: Do you know what's going to happen now?
    Betty: No, I don't. Do you know what's going to happen?
    George: (chuckles) No... I don't. [Camera pans over to Betty, then back to where George sat]
    Bill: [Sitting in George's chair] I guess I don't either.
  • Splash of Color: The town is in black-and-white until our heroes begin encouraging the natives to think for themselves. Ironically, David and Jennifer are not the first to change; they too must grow as people — Jennifer complains she is one of the last to change despite having more sex than anybody else in town, but this teaches her it's not all about sex.
  • Stealth Pun: Some early film posters colored "tv" differently from the rest of the title.
  • Stepford Suburbia: Pleasantville is not as happy as it seems. People of Pleasantville gradually realize they have passions and desires that might not correspond to their scripted role.
  • Sweater Girl: Jennifer is taken aback when she puts on the typical sweater and bullet bra.
    Jennifer: I could, like, kill a guy with these things.
  • The Talk: Zig-Zagged, in that it's a teenage daughter giving it to her mother, and then when the mother is sure the father won't be interested, the daughter points out that the man is actually dispensable.
  • Tempting Apple: David is offered an apple by his girlfriend in a film all about a fictional town's loss of innocence.
  • The Theme Park Version: Although Pleasantville the town might appear to be taken straight from a 1950s sitcom, sitcoms of that era were not actually that simple for the most part; references to pop culture, the outside world and even sexuality occurred on even the strictest shows.
  • Umbrella of Togetherness: David gives Margaret a red umbrella which he found among theatre props she doesn't know what it is at first, but she loves it. They later share a kiss, hiding under the umbrella.
  • The Unfair Sex: Set up as if it's going to be played straight, but takes a different path. The wife who finds another love interest is portrayed sympathetically... but so is her husband, who simply doesn't understand how she feels, and his defining moment is realizing how much he loves her. The movie ends with all three noting that they don't know how this will turn out.
  • Weirdness Search and Rescue: The film had the TV Repairman, who instigated the Trapped in TV Land plot, and then ineffectually tried to stop the fallout from it.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: What happened to the old Bud and Mary Sue? You'd think that even the old Bud would come back once David leaves.
  • When Dimensions Collide: What the protagonists' presence does to Pleasantville. Everything is excessively pleasant (as well as lacking colour, there is no rain, crime, homelessness, fire, sex or toilets). Throughout the film their actions impact the world around them and colours and concepts from the real world (like fire, sex, colour and rain) start to appear as a result.
  • Wrap Around: Early in the film, the town's topology is such that someone going off one side of the town would end up on the other side.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: A week in Pleasantville is half an hour in the real world.


The Phantom MenaceCreator/Modern Video FilmPower Rangers Lightspeed Rescue
Dark CityHugo AwardGalaxy Quest
The Players ClubFilms of the 1990sPractical Magic
MatineeThe FiftiesLiterature of the 1950s

alternative title(s): Pleasantville
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