Mona Lisa Smile
March 11, 2003
Starring: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson, Marcia Gay Harden, John Slattery, Marian Seldes, Donna Mitchell, Terence Rigby, Jennie Eisenhower, Leslie Lyles, Laura Allen, ,
Once upon a time Julia Roberts was the queen of the 90’s romantic comedy who reinvented herself via Steven Soderbergh in 2000 as an Oscar-winning actress. Mona Lisa Smile fails Roberts in both these categories, never once throwing up a surprise or insight about 50’s feminism that you can’t see coming a mile away, or a touching scene that doesn’t feel forced. The performances are all solid, but there’s an air of familiarity here that renders the film enjoyable yet forgettable. An excellent female cast (Dunst, Gyllenhaal, Stiles) get to dress and act like 50’s movie stars posing as students, but only Dunst, who underplays the central conflict that is blatantly spelled out by the other characters along the way, comes out smelling of roses.
Essentially a ‘Dead Artists Society’, the film involves a group of same-sex students in a rigid educational system who are shown how to be individuals by their newly appointed free-thinking teacher. Instead of Robin Williams and a bunch of boys, we get Julia Roberts and a group of girls.
There’s a certain irony that a film about feminism and liberation is so obviously and patronisingly aimed at the undemanding ‘chick flick’ crowd. Every scene looks like an Estee’ Lauder advert; you keep expecting one of the stars to twirl their hair and announce to camera that their shampoo is fifty-per-cent more tangle-resistant than other brands. This in itself isn’t a bad thing when you have the drama to back up the candy visuals, but just when a theme is hit upon (trading education for marriage, thinking for yourself), the script backs down and moves on to another clichéd scene where the fat girl falls for a nerd or the campus bee-atch turns over a new leaf.
So Mona Lisa Smile isn’t particularly insightful or fresh, but neither is it a bad film per se. As the ballsy Katherine, Roberts flashes her million-watt smile every five minutes (a sure-fire winner in itself) and the production design is sumptuous (did I just use the word sumptuous?), but once you’ve finished watching, chances are you’ll be thinking that Dead Poets Society and Far From Heaven did all this before (and better), and you won’t give the film a second thought.
Where it does succeed is in the little moments, where Roberts turns down a room because she isn’t allowed a hotplate, or when Dunst proudly shows off her new house when she’s obviously miserable inside. The classroom clashes are nicely played, building characters early on through their opinion of art (the slut obviously sees everything as having an erotic subtext), and Roberts’ character is ambiguous enough to keep you wondering about her motivation for liberating these girls. Is it for their benefit or for hers?
I’m a blokey-bloke and I mildly enjoyed Mona Lisa Smile, but somehow I doubt the people who will rent/buy this will be anything other than the female of the species. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you know there’s something more fulfilling out there if you want it, as Katherine might say.
Predicting the female target audience (who won’t care about commentaries and behind the scenes documentaries), all we get is a couple of short featurettes that somehow manage to repeat themselves despite the anorexic running time. Women were repressed, they wanted to break free, yadda yadda. As if to rub our noses in it there’s also an Elton John music video. The trailer section is entertaining, but hardly essential.
No sign of a commentary, but that’s probably down to director Mike Newell working hard on the next Harry Potter movie. If Mona Lisa Smile is anything to go by, he’ll have to pull out all the stops to create anything nearly as interesting as what Alfonso Cuaron did with The Prisoner of Azkaban.