Only shades of gray

Dissing normalcy and other cultural buzz

By Chris Stamper

Thinking Leave it to beaver is a horror show
Are old TV sitcoms oppressive and reactionary? They are, according to an inverted Truman Show of a movie called Pleasantville (New Line Cinema, rated PG-13 for sexual situations). Former Clinton speechwriter Gary Ross (who co-produced Big) directed this stuffy sermon against family values, suburbia, and pre-1960s America.

Two teenagers in the troubled '90s (Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon) find a magic remote control that zaps them into one of their favorite shows. Pleasantville is a tiny town (with the same name as Reader's Digest's headquarters) where everybody behaves, nothing goes wrong, and the home team wins every game.

The pair find themselves trapped in the identity of a TV family, living in a sterile, black-and-white world with stereotyped TV parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy). They wind up wrecking the joint, teaching real-world hedonism to cardboard characters. As the residents of Pleasantville break from their predetermined roles, they burst out of black and white and into technicolor.

At this point, Pleasantville splits between those who live in color and those still in black and white. Notably, the mother character decides life as a housewife is too colorless and takes the leap. The latter group becomes reactionary and violent, attacking the "colored" who are changing their town.

This movie, which starts out whimsical and imaginative, ends as a shrill piece of self-congratulation. (As in What Dreams May Come, special effects manipulate color to make a statement.) Pleasantville should get what many Hollywood products deserve: an S for satisfactory effort, an I for ingenuity, and an N for nastiness. Its moral: postmodernity is good; everything that came before is xenophobic and repressive.

This film assumes that black-and-white television always looked like The Brady Bunch (which was in full color) and that every character was a perfect bourgeois role model. Haven't the filmmakers ever seen The Honeymooners or I Love Lucy? Mr. Ross and his colleagues are so certain they are fighting propaganda that they wind up creating more propaganda.

The chilling effect
The ultimate baby boomer angst-fest is back. The Big Chill (Columbia Pictures, rated R for sexual situations and drug use) is coming out of mothballs for a new theatrical run. Fifteen years ago, this was the movie of the generation: Seven ex-student radicals descend on a big house in South Carolina for an introspective reunion after one of their comrades kills himself. The '60s are over, the idealism is gone, and this ensemble cast must face life in Yuppie-land.

The characters' political pasts are airbrushed out of the film, making the group seem like a long-lasting group therapy session. Imagining these people running amok as longhairs dropping flowers into the gun barrels of National Guardsmen is impossible.

And it isn't pretty. The gang is reunited and everybody dumps on one another with their problems. After all, no one understood them like the group.

At the reunion, the whole cast has new lives and new obsessions since the old days. There's a TV star (Tom Berenger), a running-shoe mogul (Kevin Kline), a magazine reporter (Jeff Goldblum), and a drug dealer (William Hurt) in the bunch. The reunited chums throw incense on the pyre of their lost innocences, while constantly trying to boost their own egos.

Nobody's happy and everybody's narcissism runs wild as they talk each other's heads off. The Big Chill is well acted, wittily written, and believably written. Today, though, the film seems like something out of a time capsule. The story hints that the old radical days were full of truth and magic. Too bad these people have to live in the Reagan Era and deal with the real world, which isn't as forgiving.

Since The Big Chill originally came out in 1983 (it won three Oscar nominations, including Best Picture), today's audience is as many years from the film's setting as the characters are from their college days. Even though old Motown songs are constantly playing through this movie, the film is more a reminder of the '80s than the '60s. And that's a time to feel nostalgic about.

Copyright 1998 World Magazine. Used by permission.