I will confess to never being a huge fan of Julia Roberts. I liked her enough in Mystic Pizza (before she was anybody), Steel Magnolias, and Pretty Woman. In fact, with each movie - up until Dying Young, I thought I was becoming a fan. Then, the media oversaturated the world with Julia and I just didn't want to watch her. It was difficult to see movies with her because I struggled with the whole - am I judging her on my perception of what the media flaunts about her, or am I judging her on her craft?
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I tell you all of this because much like Tom Cruise, I've felt that Julia is a box-office wet dream for movie studios and this is more likely than not, to make me defensive against any movie that she might star in.
I wanted to see Mona Lisa Smile, mostly for the ensemble cast - Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, and Maggie Gyllenhaal. I was surprised though, when I walked out of the movie thinking that maybe, Julia has finally starred in a movie that has made me realize that she is more than the sum of her media saturation.
The story will feel very familiar to you, especially if you've seen Dead Poets Society or The Emperor's Club.
Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) lands her dream job. She's hired as an art history professor at Wellesley College for the 1953-54 academic school year. Steeped in tradition, the all-female college has some of the finest minds in the world attending and to be a part of it all - to make a difference in these girls lives - is something that Katherine was born to do.
Her first day on the job is not impressive. Her students, namely - Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst), Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles), Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and Constance Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin) - eat her alive. Not only have they read and memorized the entire semester's curriculum, they treat Katherine like she is a mere inconvenience to their daily routine.
Shaken up, Katherine regroups and thinks about how she can set out to make that difference. She goes outside the curriculum and introduces art that isn't a part of the approved lessons. This is when the girls, although uncomfortable at first, start to verbalize their unscripted thoughts on art. It's a Kodak moment for Katherine.
Unfortunately, those around her (namely the President, Department Head, and some Alumni and Students) don't take kindly to her introducing any type of "liberal" thought processes. A transplant of California, Katherine is not at all accustomed to New England or the conservative ways of the faculty and students. She struggles with finding a balance between what is right for her and what is right for everyone else.
Katherine isn't the only one trying to find her way. Her students, who seem destined to follow one path (housewife), struggle to manage the expectations of others with their own wants and desires.
The key to this entire movie is the fantastic ensemble of actresses. Kirsten Dunst, who I typically see playing a sweet girl, turns in a convincing performance as a girl who seemingly, has it all together, to the point of annoyance. Her break with the reality that her mother has created is a priceless moment in the film.
Julia Stiles is a perfect Eisenhower-ish girl, playing second-fiddle to the over the top Kirsten Dunst.
Ginnifer Goodwin, who I have never seen before, had one of the most stereotypical roles in the film. Fortunately, she was able to make the material work for her mostly due to a little spark she seems to have in her own personality.
I was most surprised by Maggie Gyllenhaal. This girl is on fire. She oozes a quiet knowledge covered in a scrumptious package of sexuality.
I mention Julia Roberts last because unlike Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, she doesn't dominate the movie. Tom's movie felt like it was all about him and everyone else revolved around him. In Mona Lisa Smile, Julia, although you may have gone in thinking it was all about her, was just one part of the bigger picture. I think that that's why this movie worked so well.
I'm slightly familiar with the work of director, Mike Newell (Pushing Tin and Four Weddings and A Funeral) however, I don't remember him making much of an impression on me. This time around, I'll surely not forget his work. While the actresses were off doing the stuff that they do well, he seemed to focus on another agenda. As I watched the movie, I noticed that the camera angles, with every scene, were paced almost like a symphony. The shots became subtly aggressive and confrontational a milli-second before the emotion of the moment got there. The combination of the two was quite powerful for me.
A special treat in the movie is an appearance by Tori Amos as a torch singer for a big band ensemble. Tori sings, You Belong To Me and Murder, He Said, both of which appear on the soundtrack. Speaking of the soundtrack, Elton John and Bernie Taupin contribute the theme song, The Heart Of Every Girl, which was just nominated this past week for Best Original Song (Golden Globes).
Mona Lisa Smile is rated PG-13 for sexual content and thematic issues. There's nothing horrible in it that would prevent you from taking your 12 year old daughter and besides, she might learn that the path you choose in life is in your own hands.
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