The exquisite conceit of Gary Ross's feature debut brings to mind the artificially controlled atmosphere of The Truman Show. But where the latter is an escape movie, in which Truman must finally twig that he's a prisoner, Pleasantville satirises an enslavement not to television but to an ideal of normality. Ross has tremendous fun imagining his hermetically sealed TV town, a community of milkmen in pristine white, firemen whose only job is to rescue kittens from trees and school basketball teams that never miss a shot. Marooned within this throwback microcosm, David urges Jennifer to play along, even if it means her eating the mountainous breakfast Mom has prepared (this is pre-diet-obsessed America) and wearing a girdle ("I've got like three pounds of underwear on," she moans). His instinct is to preserve the status quo and protect these folk from the shock of the real world.
This first half-hour passes in a trance of hilarity as the innocence and conformity of Pleasantville register in Jennifer's disbelieving looks. But she soon decides to trade bobbysoxer wholesomeness for a more Nineties approach to dating, giving her wide-eyed suitor a night he'll never forget - nobody in Pleasantville has had sex before. As inhibitions melt away, dabs of colour randomly appear against the monochrome - a red rose, a pink tongue, a convertible, a print dress. Then, slowly, individual people bloom into colour. Creative inspiration is uncorked: Mr Johnson (Jeff Daniels), the owner of the diner where David works, discovers a talent for bold modernist painting.
The cause of this Technicolor transformation keeps us guessing: at first one assumes it's all the sex they're catching up on, or the force of romantic love. This uncertainty gives rise to a pair of beautiful, complementary scenes. David finds his mother in distress - she, too, has gone "coloured", and is terrified of showing her face to her husband - and so, he helps her apply monochrome make-up to hide her new-found flesh tones. The strangeness of the scene is complicated by its awful poignancy; a whole lifetime of subservience and self-modesty feels locked up in Joan Allen's face. This scene is answered later when Mr Johnson, who's been in love with David's mother for years, wipes a tear from her face and uncovers a tiny blush of skin beneath - the skin she has tried to camouflage. It has the magical revelation of a picture restorer finding fresh pigment beneath the dullness of an old painting.
The lovely wit of this retro fantasia feels almost too good to last and, sure enough, the film gradually darkens into a parable about prejudice and difference. At first Betty's defection from home is cause for bafflement: husband George simply can't understand why she isn't there to greet him at six o'clock with dinner on the table. Macy plays this scene superbly, doing a slow double-take in the hope that repeating his routine "Honey, I'm home!" will somehow make his wife materialise. Then other husbands find their dominion collapsing, and the mayor, Big Bob (JT Walsh), decides it's time to mobilise the forces of righteousness and restore some order. Colour is outlawed, and differences of skin pigment become a target of mob paranoia and resentment. Mr Johnson's diner is vandalised, books are thrown on bonfires; in shop windows NO COLORED signs are hung.
Are we to infer from this that small-town Fifties America was not only quaint and provincial but a hotbed of racists and philistines too? In prompting us to examine its moral implications more closely, the fantasy of Pleasantville begins to fray. Contradictions and inconsistencies make hairline cracks over its fragile veneer. We're told, for example, that all the books in the town library are blank - only when David remembers the plot does the text magically appear. But how many plots would he have to recall to provoke a book-burning? The question of why people change from monochrome to colour seems to be answered in a courtroom finale; as David explains, it's caused by intensity of feeling, including hatred. But in that case, wouldn't the mob which stoned the diner and burnt the books also have changed into colour, motivated as it was by anger?
The film also fudges the issue of sex, portraying it as an exclusively good and liberating experience. I felt my more conservative hackles rise at this, ignoring as it does the complications of teenage sex and, for instance, the traumatic possibilities of divorce. Gary Ross may argue that it's merely a fantasy, yet for all the brilliance of his conception, he has a blind spot when it comes to human consequences. He never acknowledges the basic truth that innovation is a double-edged sword: the cost of anything new worth having is the loss of something old worth keeping. That "something old" is, of course, innocence, and the film's ambivalent yearning for it is both its strength and its weakness.
Let's be clear: Pleasantville is a technical marvel, enlivened by a smart script, great visual jokes and a handful of fantastic performances. But its thinking is confused, and faintly patronising. The film-makers start out gently mocking a place for its lack of reality. Then, when fear and prejudice sweep through town, they come over all moralistic because it has too much reality. They want intellectual sophistication to co-exist with prelapsarian innocence. They want understanding without volition. In the end, they want it both ways - isn't that just like the movies?