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Mona Lisa Smile

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Mona Lisa Smile

Starring: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst
Director: Mike Newell
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 117 Minutes
Release Date: December 2003
Genres: Comedy, Drama

*Also starring: Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson, John Slattery, Marcia Gay Harden, Topher Grace, Laura Allen, James Callahan

Review by Steve Rhodes
2 stars out of 4

MONA LISA SMILE is a female version of DEAD POETS SOCIETY whipped up into a light, fluffy and sugary confection for the holidays. Julia Roberts stars as Katherine Watson, a Berkeley Bohemian who in 1953 has just arrived at, what we are told is the country's most conservative college, Wellesley, to be its new art history instructor. An all-girl school with every student as rich as Croesus, the students are academic overachievers who want nothing more than a wedding ring. Katherine comes to deride the school as just "a finishing school disguised as a college."

The film's problems, as well as its few fun moments, can be attributed directly to the writers, Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, who seem incapable of crafting characters that aren't complete stereotypes. Roberts is the frightened idealist, who will overcome her fears and forever change the lives of the girls she teaches. Marcia Gay Harden plays an anal teacher of "speech, elocution and poise," who is incapable of breaking out of her self-imposed chains. Kirsten Dunst plays the bitch who is the first to be married and the first to be disillusioned. Julia Stiles plays the brainiac who is pre-law but has no intention of being anything but a bride. Maggie Gyllenhaal is the promiscuous free-spirit who finds her independence through sex. And Ginnifer Goodwin is the slightly pudgy student who thinks she's a hopeless wallflower.

The story's arc runs from the beginning of the school year, when all that the students want is a marriage proposal, to the end, when, thanks to the enlightenment provided by their art teacher, they realize that there are more possibilities in life than cooking and sewing. The actors are too smart to convincingly play dumb, which means that the story is rarely convincing. Only Goodwin's touching performance as a girl who thinks she's undesirable has any believability or punch.

The few joys of the preposterously over-the-top story come in the way that the film captures the sense of time and place, right down to the paint-by-numbers kits and to the teaching of young ladies in the proper way to cross and uncross their legs. The dialog can be quite delicious at times, including my two favorites: "Art isn't art until someone says it is." and "Forget the A-bomb. Freon is going to change the U. S. of A." We have our dot-coms. They had Freon.

MONA LISA SMILE runs 1:59. The film is rated PG-13 for "sexuality, nudity and language" and would be acceptable for kids around 12 and up.

Copyright 2003 Steve Rhodes

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