Mona Lisa Smile

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"What Thou Have You Bring Me Eowyn?" "The Head of Julia Roberts"

Dec 20, 2003 (Updated Jan 3, 2004)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Cinematography, Production, Costumes, & the Performances of Harden, Gyllenhaal, and Goodwin.

Cons:A Generic, Messy Script, Newell's Mediocre Direction, & Bland Acting from Roberts, Stiles, & Dunst.

The Bottom Line: "Mona Lisa Smile" is a bland, messy film from Mike Newell with mediocre performances from its leads despite some noteworthy performances from Harden, Gyllenhaal, and Goodwin.


Often touted as America’s Sweetheart, Julia Roberts has made some nice, lighthearted films like “Pretty Woman”, “Steel Magnolias”, “Notting Hill”, “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and her Oscar-winning role in “Erin Brokovich”. Since winning the Oscar for Best Actress, Roberts went on a detour to experiment more as an actress, notably with independent filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, who she worked on “Erin Brokovich” for films like “Ocean’s Eleven”, “Full Frontal”, and George Clooney’s directorial debut for “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”. Some wonder if Roberts’ experiment would be a detour from Hollywood but she decided to return to her leading lady status for the all-prep school drama “Mona Lisa Smile”.

“Mona Lisa Smile” is about a 1953 subversive art teacher from UCLA who goes to the east coast, All-women School of Wellesley College to teach a group of overachieving students to find alternatives to marriage. Along the way, she has to endure the rigid, conservatism of the school, its students, and the façade society that is the 1950s. Directed by Mike Newell and written by the team of Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, “Mona Lisa Smile” might seem like the female version of Peter Weir’s 1989 masterpiece “Dead Poets Society”. Apparently, it isn’t nor should it even be compared to “Dead Poets Society”. Hailed as one of the most anticipated films of 2003, “Mona Lisa Smile” comes off as a bland, mediocre mesh of a film that leaves too many unanswered questions and contrived messages. Not even the film’s young cast of Kirsten Dunst, Ginnifer Goodwin, Julia Stiles, and Maggie Gyllenhaal along with Dominic West, John Slattery, and Marcia Gay Harden could save this disappointment called “Mona Lisa Smile”.

The film begins when former UCLA teacher Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) who arrives at the station for Wellesley College, an all-women’s school in Massachusetts where she’s been hired to teach in the art department for its students. Watson meets up with staff and lives in the house with fellow teacher, Nancy Abbey (Marcia Gay Harden) who has an affixation with TV show “I Love Lucy”. On Watson’s first day, she meets up with her class to show them slides of paintings and every student identify the painting as such like robots and Watson finds herself being challenged. She talks to Nancy and school nurse Amanda Armstrong (Juliet Stevenson) about the first day saying it was fine.

The next day, Watson gives paintings that weren’t in the required syllabus for the students that leads to the school’s news editor Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst) to saying the painting is appalling since it has no structure or textures. Fellow classmates Constance Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) however find something different about as Giselle considered it aggressive and erotic. Betty isn’t fond of Watson’s subversive tactics although the rest of her classmates including valedictorian Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles) find them refreshing. Giselle however, thinks Watson is great as she plays around a lot carrying a diaphragm around her that she got from the school nurse. Betty, being the snitch, writes about Armstrong giving out contraceptives that forced to be fired by the school’s rigid, conservative president Jocelyn Carr (Marian Seldes).

Katherine finds herself in a dangerous position wondering if she should continue to challenge the system while finding a bit of sympathy from the school’s Italian professor Bill Dunbar (Dominic West). When Katherine was grading papers, she meets up with Joan who questioned her grade as Katherine just wants her to state her own opinion and not someone else’s. Katherine asks what Joan plans to do, after marriage since she’s already signed up for pre-law. Katherine suggests she should go to Yale. One event the school is anticipating is Betty’s wedding to an important young named Spencer Jones (Jordan Bridges) as the whole school attends and it becomes some event as Giselle continues to flirt with Dunbar, whom she had an affair with in the summer.

Joan and her boyfriend Tommy Donegal (Topher Grace) would visit Betty and Spencer on one occasion as she tells Betty that she’s thinking of going to Yale Law School to Betty’s utter disgust. Katherine meanwhile, is trying to teach the class more about art. Not to appreciate but look beneath the paintings, notably Jackson Pollock. The students find themselves more comfortable, including Constance who always gets some sort of bad criticism from Betty. Constance finds herself more at comfort whenever Betty isn’t around, especially when pursuing aspiring writer Charlie Stewart (Ebon Moss-Bacharach). When Betty returns from her honeymoon, she tries to make horrible comments towards Watson’s abrasive tactics but Watson refuses.

During the holidays, Katherine receives a visit from her boyfriend Paul Moore (John Slattery) who tries to propose to her but she finds herself uncomfortable, especially in the presence of Dunbar and Giselle. Joan meanwhile, is questioning on what she wants since she loves Tommy but also wants to be a lawyer. Katherine breaks up with Paul and finds herself more becoming closer to Dunbar. Dunbar’s newfound relationship with Watson leaves Giselle to be a bit more desperate as she tries to find a new affair. After a party where Katherine revealed that she was once engaged but never made it to the altar, Betty goes into another rant over Katherine’s life and finds herself alienated by the rest of the student.

Betty becomes a thorn to some students, notably the insecure Constance as she tells her that Charlie had been going out with someone, which turned out not to be true as Betty finds her marriage crumbling. The political aspect of the school grows tense when the board question what Katherine has been doing. The students began to ponder their own direction in life including Betty as Katherine is wondering if she should stay without any sense of compromise.

What makes “Mona Lisa Smile” such a disappointing film in many levels is rooted in its script. The script leaves too many plot holes about why is Katherine being subversive, what emotional reasons is Giselle having for these affairs, why the school is trying to be protective of new things, and why is this script such a mess? Then again, this is what should be expected from the likes of Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal since they wrote such awful films like the “Planet of the Apes” and “Mighty Joe Young” remakes. They leave too many characters with unanswered questions, rigid stereotypes (in the male roles), generic film clichés including a very bland ending that leaves you with a sour taste in your mouth, and contrived messages that might upset the hardcore feminists. Director Mike Newell, known for his great work in “Enchanted April” and “Donnie Brasco” does a somewhat, mediocre job although he can capture great dramatic moments, he doesn’t give anyone the idea on what type of film this should be. Should this be a drama, a comedy, a thinking film, what? The film has no true, linear structure and leaves everything in a very disappointing way.

Newell still should be given credit for trying to make things interesting since the pacing of the film is attentive but it’s given a weak script with no sense of a singular direction to begin with. What was the point of this film? I know women in the 1950s played these rigid, housewife roles that have a nice image but I doubt there was any sense of extreme until the Beat movement later in that decade. I know women were the core audience of this film, particularly young college women. Yes, it’s all right with women to be married and to have a career. I don’t have a problem with. I just don’t like it presented in this bland, contrived form.

One of the few positives of the film is the cinematography by Anastas N. Michos, that has lovely moments of colorful images and that authentic 1950s look. Even the production and costume designs are well used. Since the film was a period piece of sorts, you have to have that authentic look and back-in-time feel. While the cinematography, art direction, production designs, and costumes design should be noted, it still doesn’t have the freshness of what to expect for a film made for the Oscars, which is one huge reason why this film was made. Another noted factor but in a very poor way was the score by Rachel Portman. Even in the tense, dramatic moments, it doesn’t feel suspenseful nor in the lighter moments, it comes out as fluff.

Julia Roberts without a doubt, is a good actress depending on what film she does. Unfortunately in period pieces like “Mary Reilly” and “Michael Collins”, she has never fared well and in “Mona Lisa Smile”, she doesn’t really bring anything that we haven’t seen before. Sure, her smile will make you go to the theaters but does it help the film. No. While she showed some masterful parts in the dramatic scenes and having some nice chemistry with Marcia Gay Harden, she doesn’t carry spark when it comes to the romantic scenes with Dominic West, which felt too fast and very clichéd. West’s character, like most of the male characters, is written in a very stereotypical way. West’s Bill Dunbar is served as this lothario who isn’t quite as he seems and it’s a very clichéd character and West’s performance is mediocre at best.

The rest of the male performances from Topher Grace and Jordan Bridges are also clichéd although Grace does bring in some charm into his performance while Bridges just stands there and look good next to Kirsten Dunst. John Slattery’s role as Robert’s boyfriend was so underused and was left very early after she dumps him and he seemed like a good guy and it was a waste for Slattery. The best male performance goes to Ebon Moss-Bacharach as the nerd-like Charlie Stewart since he has a charm and his performance even surpasses the cliché his character is written and the scenes he has with Ginnifer Goodwin were nice to watch.

While the smaller performances of Juliet Stevenson, Marian Seldes, and Donna Mitchell as Dunst’s mother were used to a good degree despite their clichés while Mitchell’s character as this mean, controlling mother was a little too much. Kirsten Dunst’s performance as the b*tchy Betty Warren at times is convincing since you don’t like her but you don’t really sympathize with her character very much at all and she comes out very shrilly. Even when she strays from her mother and conservative views, her development is way too fast and it ends up becoming a very mediocre performance. Julia Stiles’ performance I found to be the most confusing because half the time, she’s speaking in an English, New English, or a straightforward American accent. It was very messy and her character was just totally generic, I didn’t really care for her.

The film’s best performance for me goes to Ginnifer Goodwin as Constance since she was someone to sympathize with since she isn’t the prettiest of the whole group but Goodwin plays her performance with a lot of heart. Maggie Gyllenhaal delivers an excellent performance although she is not the scene-stealer many are saying. Although I enjoyed her character in the film since she kind of played the big-sister role for other characters as well as being flirtatious, I felt the character was underwritten. In the film’s site, they say she is fragile and all of this junk yet I never found out why she sleeps with these men or anything. It was very confusing to be quite honest with although Gyllenhaal, to her credit stood out on her own. Marcia Gay Harden is the film’s most hilarious performance since she tries to teach the women how to please your husbands while having some sadness that she tries to hide through her humor. Harden, deserves a lot of credit for bringing some much needed humor to the rigid, melodrama the film was going under.

Overall, “Mona Lisa Smile” is just a huge disappointing effort from Mike Newell despite some noteworthy performances from Marcia Gay Harden, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Ginnifer Goodwin. It was very clear from the start this film was made to get some attention for the Oscars but after the recent snub from the Golden Globes (except for Best Original Song for Elton John, which is an all right song); it’s likely not to get any Oscar nominations for anyone involved except the costume and production designs. Fans of Julia Roberts might enjoy this although they might expect more from her as an actress instead of the name people know. Fans of Gyllenhaal should best stay away from this film although she does a good performance. “Mona Lisa Smile” is really a film for fans of Julia Roberts although many fans would feel it could’ve been much better in the end.


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