Mona Lisa Smile
December 17th, 2003
What may seem on the surface to be an inspiring story about the power of education is really a story about the claustrophobia of 1953 marriage expectations imposed on college-age women. Laced with a seething hatred of men, and Julia Roberts’s refusal to play period, and “Mona Lisa Smile” is a pretty unpleasant film from a director, Mike Newell, who I thought knew better.
Arriving at Wellesley College for a brand new academic year in 1953, art-history teacher Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) is excited about her first opportunity to mold minds and confront her students’ preconceptions of life. What she gets is a class full of over-achievers (including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julia Stiles, and Ginnifer Goodwin) who are biding their time until they can graduate, get married, and promptly have babies - thus ending their potential. Katherine is aghast at this thought, and soon pushes them to better their lives through education and simple questioning of their true purpose. She gets through to most of the students, but one in particular (Kirsten Dunst) is appalled by Katherine’s beliefs and independence, and will do her best to squash it before it sweeps up the entire campus.
A teacher breaking through her icy students and setting them intellectually free is not terribly new ground for a movie to cover. “Mona Lisa Smile” attempts to twist the formula around a bit by providing a female perspective on the subject of education’s ability to blow minds. “Smile” is a period film set in the 1950s, when women were still strictly second-class citizens, and attempts to change that were looked down upon. The film gets amazing mileage exploiting the injustices against women during this era, mostly at the expense of the male characters. Director Mike Newell (“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Donnie Brasco”) doesn’t seem to mind that his film is violently anti-male, often encouraging himself with his disheartening direction of the guys in the film to inflict as much emotional pain on the females as they possibly can, thus rendering all of them one-dimensional repressive monsters. Yeesh! All this is arranged so the main ideas of “Smile” are more pointedly executed and easily understood by the teen girls in the audience who might not have a grip on life outside of the last two decades. But for the story and the overall film, it dilutes the message and turns “Smile” into a soap opera in the worst sense. For a script about forward-thinking and progression, it sure is filled with regressive attitudes and reprehensible depictions of the relationships between men and women.
What Newell does capture with ease is the claustrophobia the characters feel as they attempt to break away from the routine. The goal for these women is marriage, with Newell creating a tight world of campus suspicion and societal prompts for the girls to keep to the traditional routes of a respectable woman. “Smile” has the outside appearance and initial construction of being another teacher-changes-student movie, with Katherine testing the girls’ knowledge of modern art - including one scene where she takes the girls on a field trip to see a painting by Jackson Pollock. But this is all a big red herring, because the film soon settles into an overdramatic vibe where each of the characters gets screwed over by a man, then destroys the happy life of the person immediately next to them. This takes the overall heart and point right out of the story, which is illustrated by the total lack of an ending to the picture. Without a buildup to a climax, “Smile” dissipates slowly, and disappoints in its reluctance to take the claustrophobic atmosphere anywhere besides the obvious.
Again, the film is set in 1953, but one would never know that by looking at star Julia Roberts. Katherine thinks outside of the box, and Roberts plays her with a modern wink in her eye to sell the reasoning behind her refusal to wear period clothes or follow period cosmetics. Still, there is a nagging undertow of disbelief in Roberts’s characterization when she looks and acts like she just stepped off the set of “Ocean’s Eleven.” This can be swept under the rug and kissed off with an easy “it’s the character” explanation. But let’s get real. The rest of the cast hugs tight to the fashion and attitudes of the time, and it doesn’t make sense to see Katherine get to the position she’s attained without playing by some of the rules. It snaps the credibility “Smile” is looking to achieve like a dry twig.
Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal does an impressive job delivering the film’s only honest performance as a student spitefully licking her wounds after an affair with her professor. Newell’s direction and the screenplay, which turns everybody into idiots at the drop of a hat, destroy the rest of the cast. Kirsten Dunst gets the worst of it, giving a shrill, quivering fit of a performance. Drag queens everywhere will appreciate it. And Julia Roberts? Well, Newell gives us the smile, the laugh, and the hair. Does anyone dare ask for anything else anymore?
My rating: D+