When Screenwriters Sit In the Director's Chair

In an age when good directors are celebrated as "auteurs," often getting more publicity than the stars of their pictures, little attention is paid to the screenwriting profession.

Some writers try to correct this by trumpeting the importance of their contributions every chance they get. Others protest in a more practical way - taking over the director's chair themselves, hoping to protect their visions during the perilous journey from page to screen.

This season two noteworthy scribes are making the switch. Pleasantville is written and directed by Gary Ross, who counts the hugely popular "Dave" and "Big" among his past accomplishments. Living Out Loud comes from Richard LaGravenese, whose writing credits include "The Fisher King" and "The Bridges of Madison County," as well as "Beloved," currently in release.

Both movies are now traveling to theaters after eagerly attended premires at the recent Mill Valley, Calif., filmfest.

By a pleasant coincidence, "Pleasantville" makes a perfectly matched set with "The Truman Show," one of last summer's best movies. Again the main action takes place in a town where life follows the formulas of a hackneyed TV show. And again the story prompts us to ask ourselves whether the idealized clichs of a picture-perfect community are a genuine utopia or a fraudulent substitute for the stimulating challenges of real human existence.

The heroes of "Pleasantville" are two 1990s teenagers who find themselves mysteriously transported to the never-never-land of a nostalgia-based television comedy. Their neighbors are all too familiar - the doting mom, the friendly malt-shop proprietor, and so on - but despite the nonstop cheeriness they encounter, the new residents can't feel quite at home. The town's insistence on wholesomeness-by-the-numbers has a phony ring, and when the teens try to open people's minds a little, they touch off a ferocious backlash that reveals real frustration and hatred beneath that smiling 1950s faade.

"Pleasantville" concocts an amusing parody of family-values rhetoric, through Ross's script and through the movie's clever visual maneuvers, using the contrast between color and black-and-white cinematography to chart the slowly changing attitudes of the town's stodgy residents. Also impressive is the picture's excellent cast, from Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon as the teen visitors to Joan Allen and William H. Macy as their Pleasantville parents.

The movie has less biting originality than "The Truman Show," but it proves that director Ross retains screenwriter Ross's flair for exploring real-life issues through divertingly far-fetched plots.

LaGravenese leans toward more bittersweet subjects, and in "Living Out Loud" he explores the psychology of the singles scene through a story that steers a wobbly course between comedy and melodrama.

Holly Hunter plays a divorce whose comfortable life doesn't mask the emptiness she's felt since her husband ditched her. Her solitude is starting to seem overwhelming when she makes a couple of unexpected friends. One is Danny DeVito as the elevator operator in her apartment building, himself devastated by the recent death of his daughter. The other is Queen Latifah as a feisty nightclub singer who's full of advice for others, but frankly uncertain about her own latest romance.

As its title suggests, "Living Out Loud" carries the upbeat message that a life of doubt and insecurity is less meaningful than a life of reaching out, taking risks, and just plain having fun. If that message carries less force than one might wish, it's because LaGravenese the director seems less sure of himself than LaGravenese the writer, resorting to occasional gimmicky touches that dilute the moods and meanings for which he's striving. The plot is promising and the acting is earnest, but in the end the movie doesn't quite work. In the current writer-director sweepstakes, it's Ross with his "Pleasantville" who takes home the honors.

* 'Pleasantville,' rated PG-13, contains vulgar language and sexual innuendo. 'Living Out Loud," rated R, contains sex and vulgarity. David Sterritt's e-mail address is sterrittd@csps.com

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