Mona Lisa Smile

Fifties era relationship angst and Women's lib, Julia Roberts style. And all the horrors that implies.

Released in 2003, certified UK-12A. Reviewed on 16 Mar 2004 by Scott Morris
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On the surface of things, I've one too many Y chromosomes to have any business watching the latest Julia Roberts vehicle, Mona Lisa Smile. It's marketed near exclusively as a chick flick (i.e. no guns, explosions, robots from the future, mutant alligators or talking pies). Strange, given screenwriters Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner's previous outings such as the dubious remake of Planet of the Apes, Superman IV (ick), Star Trek VI (double ick) and The Beverly Hillbillies (muchos ick) all of which hardly pandered to the fairer sex. Somehow the trailer manages to focus on all of the most irritating moments (to my teeny little mind, anyway) and as such I was looking forward to watching this in the same way one would look forward to castration followed by an acid bath.

While I'd hesitate to say that it's a good film, Mona Lisa Smile turns out to be at least a bearable one, even if it is flawed up the wazoo. The Roberts plays Katherine Watson, a Californian Arts graduate accepting a teaching job at the prestigious Wellesley College, a ladies only institution with a stick so far up its ass it has splinters on its colon. Set in 1953, the college's most important teachings would appear to be "What to cook for a visit from your husbands' boss" given the overwhelming social norms dictating that women should be married and not heard. Despite the academic excellence of many of the students they have little aspirations other than to marry and procreate, thanks to the adroit social programming that men had gotten away with until 1960's.

Firebrand Watson will have no part of this, using her history of art class as a brainwashing camp for her students, trying desperately to convince them of their equality and to strike out on their own, blah, blah, independence, blah, blah, burn bras, etc, etc, all through the tenuous connections with their coursework. Coursework which it would be remiss not to point out soon drops all pretence at being about the "history of art" in favour of "appreciation, discussion, and anything else that can be shoehorned in that's a vague social corollary of art".

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As with most films of this ilk the social setting provides only a superficial peturbance, the main gist of the piece being humanity's unerring capacity to be horrible to each other on as regular a basis as possible. It's been said that this film hates men, but I'm not sure that's exactly right. It hates everybody, wether the characters particularly deserve it or not. Chief harpy takes the form of Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst), one of the mostly roundly abrasive, petty, vindictive, bitchy and plain irritating characters to grace the silver screen in years. This kind of shallow characterisation might be suitable for the bad guy in a 3 Ninjas 4: High Noon at Mega Mountain but on something with aspirations at serious cinema it's utterly inadequate, and Dunst plays the role without any shred of humanity until her final change of heart after rejecting her domineering mother and cheating husband (who breaks a new record in marriage infidelity, seemingly tiring of Dunst's charms after about four days).

One teary-eyed breakdown is hardly enough to undo an act full of needlessly snide putdowns and pointless insults, normally directed at the shy and retiring Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin) or the quite frankly slutty Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Betty is as single minded at causing misery for others as Watson is at foisting her worldview on others, regardless of their feelings. Chiefly this is in the form of her term-long badgering of Joan (Julia Stiles) to apply for Yale law school, which she eventually does and is accepted. Sadly for Watson even though Joan is accepted she only wants to get married, which doesn't fit in with Watson's masterplan for female domination. Cue much lecturing, which Joan rightly shoots down in flames as she points out exactly how presumptuous and contemptible Watson's posturing can be no matter how well-meaning.

Joan ends up being about the only sympathetic character on show, a strong minded, intelligent woman who just so happens to want to conform to societies norms and do the whole husband/kids thing. Connie is also an utterly harmless creature, but one that's harder to relate to given that much of her angst comes from the 'ooh, I'm fat and ugly' bucket that's somewhat holed by Ginnifer Goodwin being neither.

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For a film that's supposed to hate men it sure doesn't feature a great many of them, only Bill Dunbar (Dominic West), ex-soldier and teacher of Italian given more than a cursory role. He's as flawed as everyone else here, perhaps chiefly by buying into this strange myth that Julia Roberts is the most stunningly beautiful thing to ever pout on this earth. Where the attraction of this woman lies is something that's puzzled us at theOneliner for years, so if you have a suitable explanation (preferably with bar charts and clear diagrams) email us at the usual address. For what little purpose he serves West exudes an easy going charm that makes the many scenes he's used as a sounding board for Watson's frustrations surprisingly bearable.

Bearable does seem about the best word for the film. Given that the main advertised gist of the film stopped being relevant pretty much at the end of the fifties there seems little take-home message here unless Marty McFly takes a copy back in the DeLorean. As a study of relationships it's far too fractured and shallow to be of much consequence, and about the only interesting aspects are fairly decent supporting turns from Goodwin, Gyllenhaal and especially Stiles. Roberts goes through her usual schtick with the minimum of variation or surprises, do if you didn't tire of it along with us sometime around 1989 I'm sure you'll love it.

There's a relatively enjoyable ninety minute movie in here. A pity then it's wearing a two hour overcoat, as it meanders around making the same points multiple times which ends up diluting rather than reinforcing it's muddy message. Quite what it's trying to say about, well, anything remains a shrouded mystery to me, unless the point of the piece was simply that people are flawed, to varying degrees, some are nasty and some are nice. We surely aren't supposed to take this film seriously as a historical document, a laughable notion, so I'm left wondering what purpose it serves in the scheme of things. Sadly, were it intended purely as a slice of entertainment it barely succeeds.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 2/5 TippyMarks.

Mike Newell
Cast list:
Julia Roberts (Katherine Watson)
Kirsten Dunst (Betty Warren)
Julia Stiles (Joan Brandwyn)
Maggie Gyllenhaal (Giselle Levy)
Ginnifer Goodwin (Connie Baker)
Dominic West (Bill Dunbar)