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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

Reviewer Roundup
1.  Harvey Karten review follows movie reviewvideo review
2.  Steve Rhodes read the review movie reviewmovie review
3.  Dustin Putman read the review movie reviewmovie review
4.  Susan Granger read the review movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review

Review by Harvey Karten
1½ stars out of 4

If you went to an out-of-town college during the Jurassic Age (1950's), as I did, you'll recognize what's on display in Mike Newell's classically styled film. That the young women and their Art History 100 instructor are types is not to take away too much from the university-based drama, though what is disappointing is the lack of creativity a flaw that relegates "Mona Lisa Smile" to the large bin of formulaic, Hollywood creations. As I recall from my days at Tufts, which like the Wellesley College that forms the background of Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal's story, the women at Wellesley were known to us as stuck-up (a term often used in the fifties) while those at Tufts' sister school, Jackson College, were rated overtly intellectual. We tended to prefer the down-to-earth residents of Boston University .

Those in the audience who are under the age of sixty have likely gained their knowledge of the Eisenhower years from movies like Todd Haynes's "Far from Heaven," which has the look and feel of a Douglas Sirk soap, dealing with issues that were taboo to films of that very decade. "Mona Lisa Smile" also treats some subjects freely discussed today though taboo then, but since the U.S. in 1953 was on the cusp of the women's movement, those topics were embracing discussion a little more freely, and what's more one independent-minded student in Newell's pic is conducting affairs with three different men and not at all embarrassed about flaunting her choice.

"Mona Lisa Smile," filmed by Anastas Michos at Wellesley College and at sites around Columbia and Yale, opens on Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts), heading into her first job as an instructor in Art History 100. Politically liberal, she bumps hard against the culture of Wellesley which, despite its location in the heartland of the progressive state of Massachusetts is bogged down in the regressive politics of the period. The school is for women only, only white faces are on exhibit, and the student body comes across as well-heeled to a fault. (Things are a lot different there now.) During her first lecture- discussion, Katherine shows slides of art works dating from prehistoric times and is surprised by the knowledge already possessed by a class, leaving her little slack to show her stuff. Surprisingly enough, Katherine realizes that these rich charges of hers know quite a bit about what they are supposed to know. She is determined to challenge them by exhibiting some modern art later demonstrating both Jackson Pollock, also some pop-art pictures to show the absurdity of a culture that keeps women "in their place." For taking liberties with the curriculum guide, she is hauled on the carpet by the school president.

The film scores in giving its audience an inkling of what a class in art history is like. Teacher shows slides, students discuss how style defines or subverts its historical period Later she shows us how corporations have patronized and condescended to the great works of the past by, in one case, devising a "paint by the numbers" game so that "you too can be Van Gogh."

Kirsten Dunst is nicely cast as the story's bitch, unhappy with her premature marriage to a guy who is probably philandering, taking her grief out on those of her classmates who appear most vulnerable as well as publishing editorials in the school paper about the shortcomings of the faculty, including the audacity of the school nurse in supplying diaphragms on demand to the young people. Julia Stiles performs in the role of Joan Brandwyn, pushed by Katherine to apply to Yale Law School (which in 1953 allowed five spots for women in the incoming class), but determined to chuck the chance for a career to be with her man in Philadelphia (ugh). Maggie Gyllenhaal is the school's beatnik-to-be, carrying on three affairs including one with a teacher of Italian. Other types abound, including the shy gal, Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin) who learns to stop being a punching bag, and Nancy (Marcia Gay Harden), as a teacher of speech, poise and homemaking (who helps convince Katherine that she must actually be in a finishing school and not a college). The parts for men are all underwritten.

Julia Roberts can play this sort of role blindfolded, as speaking of punching bags the fifties are an era regularly bashed and Ms. Roberts does well as the woman who is going to take her young women quickly into 1970. Ultimately, though, "Mona Lisa Smile" offers little to smile about. Mike Newell, whose "Four Weddings and a Funeral" exuded buoyancy and charm in its depiction of a man who could not sustain a relationship, has regressed to a style that could have cut more ice on the British television of the 1950's in which he had a hand. Newell is on record as a critic of what he calls the pretentiousness of some art-house fare, but in "Mona Lisa Smile" he has gone too far in the opposite direction, giving us a nicely composed but finally pedestrian work.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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