Mona Lisa Smile

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Epinions Product Rating: Very Good
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I'm Not Smiling.

Mar 12, 2004 (Updated Mar 12, 2004)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Very intense interactions between students and their expectations

Cons:Clumsy script, weak plot, and lackluster performances

The Bottom Line: The bottom line is organizing a toga party on campus


Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.

I remember my college days: The bottle rockets in the dorm halls, the belching contests, the "Smash a Car for Charity" rally, and, of course, the students and their activities. It was a good time, mostly, in a little backwater school, and nothing...I repeat, nothing....like Mona Lisa Smile. Thank heavens for that...I wouldn't have been the carefree goofball I am today, otherwise.

I rarely see the standard "drama" type of movie. Give me a good horror flick, a comedy, or action/adventure any time, and I'm happy.Once in a while, I'll acquiess to my wife's requests to sit down and watch something else with her (although she likes horror films even more than I do)and there is the ocassional gem to be found. Mona Lisa Smile is not one of them.

Julia Roberts stars as Katherine Watson, newly appointed art history teacher at Wellesley College in the 1950s, arrived by way of Oakland University. Katherine is a strong, independent free-thinker who is somewhat rattled to discover her students already seem to know everything she has prepared to teach them on the first day of class; they've read all of the material and memorized the artworks displayed. She takes it upon herself to "broaden their horizons" somewhat; to challenge their thinking and open them up to new ideas and ways of perceiving the world.

OK, in and of itself, that's do-able, although it was done much better with Robin Williams in Dead Poets' Society, a parallel I've seen more than once in reading the other reviews of this film. Katherine must confront the 1950s Wellesley Ironclad Traditions to reach her students; and there's plenty of struggle involved in that. Tradition and "acceptable" thinking at Wellesley at the time stated that a woman's duty was to support her husband. A young woman could go to college, and even graduate, but after that she was expected to marry and raise a family. This was so deeply ingrained at the time, that most students freely spoke of it as their lifelong ambition and dream.

Most major thorn is Katherine's side is student Betty Warren; (Kirsten Dunst)Betty is determined to live that dream, and is highly contemptuous of anything outside of it. She isn't slow to tell Katherine that art is determined by "the right people", and, as editor of the student newspaper, Betty's scathing editorials based on Wellesley tradition and her own moral code (read: snooty upbringing) cost a nurse her job and drive Katherine to frustration and anger over Betty's intolerance and resistance to change. Betty is also poleaxed when her own dream falls short; her husband is likely cheating on her and her marriage a total sham; she seeks relief by attempting to sabotage the happiness of others.

Katherine seems to have the most success with Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles),a pre-law student who has the family dream, but who also has thought of going to Yale to continue her postgraduate education. Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and Constance Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin) are two students who appear to be on the same track as Betty, but slowly they begin to open up. Katherine also enjoys a brief fling with the Italian professor, and this along with her "liberal ideas" is apparent anathema to the Wellesley Powers that be, which seek to curtail her activities without actually dismissing her.

This could be a lively film, given that mix of talent and plot potential, but it isn't. Julia Robert's character borders on the unlikeable; she's strong, brave, compassionate and intelligent, all good qualities to be sure, but she's also headstrong and hostile toward the Wellesley traditions. Her own dislike of the Wellesley lifestyle is clear, and it isn't clear whether or not she's exposing the students to new ideas for their own benefit, or because she personally dislikes the conservative traditions so intensely.Is she seeking to honestly help these students, or is she just striking out against traditions she hates? A student puts that very point to her, and she has no good response. Basically, who is she trying to save, the students or herself? It's a question she does not ever answer satisfactorily.

Katherine's efforts don't even seem to be the main focus of the film. As they students interact together and grow throughout the school year, Katherine seems to become more and more superfluous. The character could easily have been slowly faded out and not missed.

The very plot itself appears to get a little lost along the way; is this a "coming of age" film, a "acheive your greatest potential, despite tradition" film, a "screw the snobs" film, or what is it?

Julia Roberts has done far better. She's great at comedy roles, and has done a fine turn in the more dramatic as well, serving up a great performance in Erin Brockovich, for example. But in this film, she seems to fall flat. Her performance lacks vitality; at times it seems rather sullen and dull; lacking of any real depth or personality.She's trying hard...perhaps a little too hard, and it shows.

Kirsten Dunst fares better in the role of Betty Warren, but this isn't Oscar material either. She's clearly uncomfortable in the role; a little stiffer than necessary and appearing uneasy with her character's lines. It wasn't a good match.

Julia Stiles as Joan Brandwyn fares the best of all, I would say. Joan begins as pretentious as the rest, but reveals her humanity and enthusiasm the quickest. It was an awkward role for Stiles also...her accent is a little forced, and you can almost see her concentrating on holding herself back; to force some rigidity into her character. Her character does show the most thorough development, and her words to Katherine about how she has chosen to live have an authentic ring.

A lukewarm delight in an otherwise dreary story is Maggie Gyllenhaal's Giselle Levy. Giselle is of questionable background and upbringing,and nowhere near the snoot one would expect to find at the time.Her character missed some opportunities for further exploration and growth, which is a shame. It's nowhere near a flawless performance, but she seems among the most "real" of the bunch.

I found the film mostly dreary; the lukewarm story couldn't hold my attention. I spent far too much time reflecting on the flaws, and the pace moved much too slowly. I'm giving it two stars based on Gyllenhaal's performance mostly, and for a very vivid, although probably overstated picture of Wellesley College life in the early 1950s. The rest was a waste of names and talent. There's much better out there.

Yours until Dead Poet's Society 2...Whitman's Revenge."

Hugh U. Kidden



Recommend this product? No


Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older

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