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MONA LISA SMILE (PG-13) (2003)

Columbia Pictures

Official Site

Director: Mike Newell

Producers: Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Deborah Schindler and Paul Schiff

Written by: Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal

Cast: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Dominic West, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwyn, Marcia Gay Harden, Topher Grace

Rating: out of 5

What did the poor 1950s ever do to 21st-century America? In the ’70s, works such as Happy Days, Grease, and American Graffiti reflected the popular view of the decade as a time populated by rebellious but wholesome teenagers discovering rock and roll. But more recent filmic offerings like Pleasantville and Far From Heaven, not to mention the endless supply of kitschy magnets and buttons featuring idiotic slogans mouthed by the ’50s man-smoking-a-pipe and woman-in-high-heels-baking-cookies, suggest that the contemporary view toward the post-war era is far more hostile. My own view is that the current tendency to bash the 1950s on the grounds of conformity, racial oppression, and gender inequality allows contemporary Americans the comfort of feeling good about not dealing with those social problems today. (One can make a parallel argument for the criticism of the 1980s for their greed and vapidity. Thank God those pesky issues are no longer a problem.) The fact that a movie like Mona Lisa Smile, which takes the bold and unequivocal stance that women should be able to have jobs, could still be released in 2003 tends to support my hypothesis.

In the film, Julia Roberts plays Katherine Watson, an art history teacher on her first job at all-female Wellesley College in 1953. Immediately upon arriving on campus, “Miss Watson” gets it from all sides: She can’t find a place to live that will let her boyfriend stay over, her students know so much that she finds them intimidating, the philandering Italian teacher (Dunbar) has his eye on her, and the rest of the faculty finds her unorthodox teaching methods completely unacceptable.

The subplots do proliferate in Mona Lisa Smile—there are unequivocally too many of them, and the movie could have been improved significantly just by deleting a few characters, such as Marcia Gay Hardens old-maid etiquette teacher. The cohesion the sprawling script does nonetheless manage to maintain comes from the fact that all of these conflicts revolve around two interlocking themes: women working versus women marrying and respecting individuality versus respecting tradition. Lest there be any confusion, the film makes itself perfectly clear: Women marrying is good—but only if its what they want, and independence is also good, which means tradition is bad.

Most of the stories revolve around Katherine’s students. Betty (Dunst) is only in college to get married, and she resents her teacher’s independent ways. Her best friend Joan Branwyn (Stiles), on the other hand, aspires to go to law school, but cannot even admit this to herself without her teacher’s guidance. Giselle (Gyllenhaal) comes from a broken home and likes to sleep with older men, including the Italian teacher. Lastly, Constance (Goodwin) is the “unattractive” one—every bit as ugly as Minnie Driver in Circle Of Friends—who doesnt believe anyone will ever love her.

For the many plots in this film, there are actually few decisions to be made. Things just happen and then characters digest the events. No one stands on her desk in Mona Lisa Smile, or plays a prank on the Dean. This in itself is not such a bad device—real life seldom offers moments for heroic decision-making, and the technique underscores the fact that all of these women are dealing with the same set of social demands. But in focusing the film on a couple of all-pervasive issues the filmmakers must flesh out what is at stake, and here it fails miserably. There are real benefits to longstanding traditions, real reasons why men might feel threatened by their wives wanting to work, and real motivations behind the desire to seek fulfillment through domestic life. But instead of a nuanced study of flesh-and-blood characters living in a world different from ours, the audience is treated to a series of white-hat/black-hat caricatures. The students know a great deal, but they don’t think for themselves until Katherine comes along. The faculty is stodgy and ignorant; they hate the idea that someone teaches their students about Jackson Pollock and asks them to question what art is. The spineless university administration fires the popular school nurse for dispensing birth control. When Betty’s marriage goes bad, her own mother unsympathetically tells her that the important thing is that no one find out about it. Those people are all just so bad.

In spite of the insipidity of the film’s overall message, it does manage to hit all the right notes as a mediocre melodrama. I choked up at the expressions of care between the students and the teacher, felt happy when Katherine fell in love, rooted for Joan to get into Yale Law, and so forth. But one should not for those reasons minimize the aforementioned insipidity. Whether you’ll like this one depends entirely on what you’re hoping to get out of it.

—Mike O’Connor


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