A free-thinking art professor teaches conservative 1950s Wellesley girls to question their traditional social roles.A free-thinking art professor teaches conservative 1950s Wellesley girls to question their traditional social roles.A free-thinking art professor teaches conservative 1950s Wellesley girls to question their traditional social roles.
The movie is nominally about the new teacher at the all-girls Wellesley College in 1953 and how she tries to get the students there to think for themselves instead of following the path their elders have set for them, but director Mike Newell (who it's impossible to believe once did movies like "Dance With A Stranger") and writers Laurence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, taking time out from weak remakes (they also did the Tim Burton "Planet of the Apes") and sequels (they also did "Superman IV: The Quest For Peace" and "The Jewel Of The Nile") to do an all-new movie, turn it into a nicely-shot, decently-acted two-hour soap opera. I admit I didn't hate it the way some other males commenting on it seem to - it's passably amusing and I can see the points it's trying to make - but ultimately it just doesn't come off.
Part of the problem is the casting; Julia Roberts is never believable for a second as the art teacher, and she spends the movie being acted off the screen by her students (when they show off more textbook knowledge than she does in their first class, the impression that they should be teaching her never leaves) and fellow teachers. Kirsten Dunst (as a prissy writer on the college newspaper who stands for The Way Things Are) and Julia Stiles (as an art student with a desire to be a lawyer) seem to have been cast in each other's roles by mistake; Stiles in particular sounds as if she's playing at being grown-up throughout, although both she and Dunst give it their best shot for the most part (KD's big emotional scene near the end is dreadful). As for the male roles, let's just call them tokens and leave it at that. (In fairness, Ginnifer Goodwin as the... pleasantly plump girl (you can't really call her fat), Maggie Gyllenhaal as a sexy free spirit, Marcia Gay Harden as a fellow teacher obsessed with TV and an all-too-briefly seen Juliet Stevenson as a nurse are all much better value.)
But what really hurts "Mona Lisa Smile" isn't the acting, or the music (though it's no fun hearing Barbra Streisand vocally showing off over the credits), but the writing. In addition to setting up all its characters as cliches and not really building up any of its plot lines (with Roberts's plot the dullest of all), the script's attempts to bring over the idea of women in the 1950s being who they choose to be, though perfectly laudable, come over as people switching to suit the plot (it's never clear how one character winds up changing her mind in the end). Rather than earn the movie's would-be bittersweet ending, it seems obligatory. Not much about the movie is honest, and even less is moving - only Goodwin's and Gyllenhaal's scenes are truly interesting, the former because it gives the movie some true emotion, and the latter because she's an alluring and likeable creature; some funny moments, but not enough to make it true fun. Just enough, however, to make the movie endurable.
"Mona Lisa Smile" isn't a BAD movie; it's just unnecessary, and not nearly the deep and moving treatise about the pre-Women's Lib days that it thinks it is. It's a lot like some of the beauty contestants we see in the 1950s montage at the end - pretty, but pretty shallow.
- Victor Field
- May 15, 2004