Mona Lisa Smile

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Mike Newell's Mona Lisa Smile: Don't Look Too Close

Dec 24, 2003 (Updated Dec 29, 2004)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Gyllenhaal, Harden and Stevenson are fine and the movie is very nice to look at

Cons:Entirely false, through and through

The Bottom Line: Julia Roberts most certainly does *not* have a Mona Lisa Smile and the film is equally misguided


Back in the day, movie stars used to occasionally be mysterious. Back before the paparazzi and Internet journalism and People magazine, there were aspects of ambiguity to our favorite matinee idols. Today, the mystery is gone. Movies starring Tom Cruise or Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck basically succeed or fail based on how viewers are feeling about the stars and their personal lives at any given moment and not because of the quality of their films.

There's no enigma to the $20 million A-list celebrity.

That is the problem at the very center of Mike Newell's crushingly bad Mona Lisa Smile. The film's title and its running theme are built around the mystery of the Mona Lisa and, well, her ambiguous smile. The point is that we look at the painting and see that smile, but we never know what's going on behind the smile. That is supposed to prove symbolic for both the Wellesley girls of the 1950s and their mysterious art professor Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) who in one year, teaches them lessons for a lifetime.

Unfortunately, between the hamhanded script by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, Newell's pointedly obvious direction, and the blandly manipulative score by Rachel Portman, nothing in Mona Lisa Smile is the least bit ambiguous or mysterious and there wouldn't be the slightest point in looking deeper, because every single thudding moral lesson is floating right on the surface. If there were such a thing as "ideological 3-D," where a films thematic values actually appear to jump into the audience, Mona Lisa Smile wouldn't even require the special glasses. Its messages are provided in full CineRama with THX Surround. In fact, its good intentions are so manifest that they almost beg you not to read into the film, to discover how clearly false it actually is.

Most damning of all for me, though, is the fact that Julia Roberts, as the central character in a film called Mona Lisa Smile, is the most hilarious piece of miscasting imaginable. Has there ever been an actress in the history of cinema whose smile more clearly telegraphed every emotion on her face? Roberts has the exact opposite of a Mona Lisa Smile, whatever that would be. She has a Movie Star Smile.

As a Lifetime movie with a different leading lady, Mona Lisa Smile would have just been trite and forgettable. But as a big budget Oscar-bait film with the biggest female star in the world as the lead, it's just disingenuous. It's a movie about how tough it once was to be a woman, that never lets you forget that its star is making $20 million for the privilege of being shot with gauzy lights and filters.

I understand that women had a difficult go of it in the 1950s. No doubt. Still, a film that asks you to sympathize with rich, brilliant, wealthy, white young women had better have a bit more grace than this one. Was it tough to be wealthy, smart, sexy, Caucasian, twenty-something and female in the 1950s? Yeah, I guess so, but there were probably worse things to be, unless you ask Mona Lisa Smile.

Katherine Watson arrives at Wellesley in 1953 to teach art. She leaves behind her relatively innocent boyfriend (John Slattery, an actor seemingly made to be abandoned in California) to come East to follow her dream and teach the best and the brightest female minds in the country. She arrives in class on the first day and discovers that the girls have done their homework and that they know all course books by heart. She also discovers that, as depicted in this movie, Wellesley is nothing more than a finishing school for the future wives of Harvard men. Is this actually the truth? Probably for many women it was. Do you think there were women at Wellesley in the 1950s who actually wanted to get educations and become professions of some sort? You sure wouldn't know it to watch Mona Lisa Smile.

Watson has to teach the young ladies to think for themselves. She does this by making fun of paint-by-the-numbers Van Gogh sets and taking them to New York City to see a Jackson Pollock canvass. Yup, she teaches her women that they should be able to have careers and they shouldn't need men for validation. She does this by, um, threatening to quit repeatedly and falling into the sack with the vapid, but studly Italian professor (Dominic West).

As per convention, Watson (who appears to be a full-time professor despite teaching only one class) befriends exactly four of her students. Or at least she becomes involved in the lives of four of her students. Or at least one or two of her students. Actually, she may only become involved with one of her students, but she at least influences a couple others.

True to form for a film that espouses the notion that women in the 1950s were defined only by the men in their lives, the four characters are defined for audiences precisely by the relationship to the men in their lives. Just because the characters keep insisting that we need to look beneath their surfaces, that doesn't mean that the writers can.

There's Julia Styles's Joan, who is set to be engaged to a Harvard dude (Topher Grace), but harbors dreams of harboring dreams of going to Yale Law School. Or maybe she harbors dreams of applying to Yale Law School. Or maybe it doesn't matter, since her plot line never fully resolves itself. Regardless, she talks with a slightly affected accent, so you know that she's upper crust.

There's Maggie Gyllenhaal's Giselle. Her parents got divorced and she's Jewish (sortta), so thus she must be a bohemian. And how better to show a Bohemian character than to make it clear that she's basically a slut who likes sleeping with older men and professors (presumably because, you know, her father left her family). Nothing in her intellectual pursuits or her career aspirations suggest that she's all that different from the other gals, so we know that she's progressive because she sleeps around. And we know she's Jewish because her last name is Levy and because in one entirely arbitrary moment we discover that another character's mom called her an ethnic slur.

There's Gennifer Goodwin's Connie. She's a wisecracking sidekick all the way. She's so desperate to find a man that the first guy who shows interest in her, she falls all over him despite the fact that there's nothing interesting or worthy about the guy that we see. Then, when he acts strangely and she responds somewhat incorrectly, she has to desperately throw herself at him to prove that she's worthy, er, in love.

Finally there's Kirsten Dunst's Betty, who is set to marry Beau Bridges son (or at least a character played by Beau Bridges son). So she's headed for one of those loveless marriages and due to her background, she is especially resistant to Watson's lessons. She also writes badly composed front page editorials for the school newspaper. Why? Dunno. I guess because the film needed somebody writing as a framing device.

The men in Mona Lisa Smile are all slobbering boobs because, of course, who else would be in a position to marry a wealthy, beautiful, intelligent white woman in the 1950s besides a slobbering boob?

Here's the funny thing: I actually really like Julia Roberts. I know it's all trendy to be dismissive of her as a movie star and I don't think she's a spectacular actress, but I believe that she almost always makes the movies she's in better. OK. That's not exactly true. But she makes the movies she's in in certain genres better. When she is asked to give a movie star performance, as in something like Notting Hill or Runaway Bride or Pretty Woman or My Best Friend's Wedding she has the ability to elevate awful movies into watchable films. I also applaud her occasional efforts to stretch, even though they rarely work.

Here, she's all wrong for the part, but nobody else could have played it either. Katherine Watson is just false as written and as directed. At one point towards the end, a character observes that Professor Watson taught the students by example, which is a bald-faced lie. As written, the character teaches almost entirely in a "Do as I say, not necessarily as I do" fashion. She spends a distressing percentage of the film weeping and very little time actually helping the individual students. At the end of the day, Joan is the only one who she really helps directly. She provides a little inspiration to the other gals, but to do what exactly? At the end of the movie it's hard to tell.

Instead, Newell and the screenwriters spend a disproportionate time dealing with Watson's love life which is either boring, or wrong. There's the guy she leaves in California, but he's irrelevant.

Then there's West's Bill Dunbar. Now, first of all, West is the winner of this year's "Did Every Leading Man in Hollywood Turn that Part Down?" award (last year's went to Martin Henderson of The Ring). Dunbar is a liar and a sleaze and he sleeps with students and he's not noticeably intelligent or witty or nice in any demonstrable way (particularly as played by West) and yet Watson falls for him. Why? The one solution I would suggest is that Watson is such a progressive woman that she sleeps with Dunbar because she wants sex. I would be totally fine with that. It would suggest that she's a liberated enough woman that she knows her needs and goes after them. Bravo for her. Except that's not the way the part is written, nor the way Roberts plays it. She instantly demands he be monogamous and falls hard for him despite a total absence of explanation. The romantic subplot is perfunctory, but as the film was edited, it takes up much too much screentime, particularly considering its anticlimactic conclusion.

[UPDATE: When I wrote this review, I hadn't watched "The Wire" and had no awareness of what a subtle and impressive actor Dominc West is capable of being. I now have some understanding of why he would have been cast in this part. That being said, he's still horrid in this movie. So who is to blame? I can't blame West. One more piece of blame on Newell.]

Roberts give an over-earnest, over-modulated performance that seems to be screaming for an Oscar nomination. Her every-choice suggests ACTING and Newell catches every point because he properly understands that if you have the biggest movie star in the land as your star, you light her perfectly and shoot as many tight close-ups as possible. He also, for reasons I don't understand, finds it necessarily to constantly humiliate Roberts (or her character). There's a scene where she slips down some snowy steps, almost entirely as comic relief. Did anybody need that scene to show that Boston winters were foreign to her? I didn't. It's a wholly isolated moment of physical comedy. Nobody even helps her up. How about the random point where she bursts in on one of Burton's classes and that instantly feels embarrassed. What was the point of that? To show how outraged she was, or to show that she couldn't be bothered to look into a classroom before barging in? They're just ways to make the character look weak, ways that the film didn't need.

The pressure to make the film about Julia Roberts and to concentrate on her uninteresting struggle against the Wellesley administration (where she doesn't even get to make a climactic tear-filled speech defending herself) takes quality time away from the four main gals, who never really develop their characters fully.

The performances are uneven across the board, which is actually a trademark of Newell films. Donnie Brasco may be the only time where every actor in a Mike Newell movie appeared to be on the same page. Four Weddings and Funeral and Pushing Tin are obvious examples of Newell ensembles run amuck. Here, the performances range from broadly mannered to broadly comic to naturalistic and nobody seems to be in the same movie.

Stiles is the most mannered of the performers, sunk by the fact that her character is emotionally remote throughout. Dunst is just a bland WASP-y biatch, but at least she has an emotional outburst to break up the faux-mannered diction and nose-in-air snobbishness. Goodwin seems to think she's acting for television (Ed is her biggest credit) and keeps doing comic takes and broad line readings that Newell keeps capturing in all of their ungainly glory.

There are random good performances here and there, but even they suggest talented thespians given free rein. For some reason Maggie Gyllenhaal, Marcia Gay Harden and Juliet Stevenson are good enough actors that they can create interesting characters without being directed. Gyllenhaal is natural, warm and funny despite the totally thankless character. Harden is hilarious in what I honestly believe was a comic relief part as the spinster etiquette teacher.

Stevenson offers the only break in the film's veneer of perfection, playing a Wellesley nurse who recently lost her partner. She's vastly more progressive than Roberts' character and better performed as well.

Mona Lisa Smile is a handsome production as shot by Anastas Michos, but Michos and Newell seem to only be interested in the superficial. The film is all about the lovely period costumes and the attractive actresses and their period haircuts. It's all period gloss and humorously fetishized ritual. All that's shown of daily life at Wellesly are ceremonies. They role hoops down hills. They dance around a Maypole. Yawn.

There's a sense that the only reason why Wellesley allowed itself to be involved with the movie was to prove how much things have changed. Oh yes, because nothing speaks of how empowered women have become like a feature film written by two men and directed by another (though Mona Lisa Smile does count two women as producers) that does little more than show off how pretty its stars are.

Mona Lisa Smile is a vanity puff piece somehow masquerading as social commentary without any sense of irony over how its every priority seems to be skin deep. Check out Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven for an idea of how this project might have been made with intelligence.

Anyway, this is a 2 star out of 5 mess and even that may be giving it more credit than it deserves.


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